The item is the pencil, once indispensable to schools, businesses, and just about everyone everywhere. Prior to the advent of the computer, the smart phone, and the tablet, the pencil was used to take notes and create documents. For those of us old enough to remember, our education from kindergarten letter practice to college blue book essay depended upon a sharp pencil, preferably with an amply sized eraser to remove all too frequent mistakes.
Our story begins in post-Revolutionary Massachusetts, where in 1799 one Joseph Dixon was born in the bustling and energetic new America only recently freed from English rule. Born in Marblehead, Dixon grew up on Darling Street, and his house is still there. From an early age Dixon showed an intense interest in all things mechanical, displaying a particular curiosity in trying to understand how the things worked. In time Dixon would design the forerunner of the camera viewfinder, patented a double-crank steam engine, devise a method for printing banknotes to prevent counterfeiting, and patented a new method for tunneling under water. He ranks as an inventor with Fulton, Morse, Bell, and the other great innovators of his era.
In 1827 Dixon became involved with a graphite mine, and realized that graphite had many practical uses. It was graphite that would make Dixon a rich man. Dixon developed an improved graphite crucible, a vessel used for melting metals. Graphite has excellent heat resistant properties, and the graphite crucible he invented was soon in wide use. Building on the success of his crucible, in 1847 Dixon built a mill in what is now an historic neighborhood in the downtown area of Jersey City, New Jersey. The demand for his graphite crucible grew as America and its need for iron and steel products grew, and Dixon became wealthy in the pattern of other 19th century industrialists.
The pencil had a long history prior to the arrival of Dixon, going back to the Romans. Graphite was in widespread use in writing instruments in England by 1564. But while graphite left a more visible and darker mark than lead it proved soft and brittle when used for writing. Something was needed to hold the graphite in place. At first a string wrapping was used; later the graphite was inserted into a hollow wooden stick. And with that improvement, the basic form of the modern pencil emerged. The mass production of pencils occurred in Germany, and the European pencil industry developed rapidly up through the 19th century.
A simple device, the pencil was none the less in its day a revolutionary technological breakthrough, a major step forward in writing instruments. In America, pencils were at first imported from Europe, especially high-quality pencils from Germany. American pencil making began in the early 1800s, David Hubbard, William Munroe, and even the writer Henry David Thoreau among the early American pencil manufacturers. The quality of these early American pencils left a lot to be desired. But with the tight English embargo during the War of 1812, the American pencil industry grew rapidly, Dixon making his first pencil in 1812. By 1866 he had invented a machine that could produce 132 pencils a minute.
The Dixon Company would become the largest pencil manufacturer in the world. The pencil got a big boost from its use in the classroom as generations of students learned their ABC’s, practiced division tables, and wrote essays on countless topics. Later, in the pre-multimedia days of radio and black and white TV, the pencil was needed to document thoughts, to do mathematical functions, and write down anything you didn’t want to commit to the more permanent but impossible to revise ink. There was no delete key handy in the days of pen and paper.
So what does all this talk of graphite, pencils, and Joseph Dixon have to do with automobiles? Among Dixon’s many interests and innovations he speculated on how to use the power of expanding steam to power what would be truly a horseless carriage. But Dixon did not stop with mere speculation; in 1830 he built and ran a steam carriage. Little is known today about the vehicle, or what it looked like, as it was built before the invention of the camera. But that he built it and it was a notable event in Lynn is a fact, and it ranks as one of the earliest attempts to build at steam powered vehicle in the United States.
Dixon would die in 1869, but the company he had founded would continue to grow and prosper. The Dixon-Ticonderoga Pencil would be the most widely used pencil in America for decades, millions being produced. Today the company still makes pencils, although the company no longer manufactures pencils domestically, instead operating facilities in Europe. The American pencil market has come from circle, from pencils imported from Europe to US made pencils back to imported pencils.
But there is another tie between the Dixon pencil and the automobile, one that shows just how widespread the economic and social impact of the automobile was. Along with its use in pencils, graphite has very good lubricating properties and was soon adapted for automotive use. The Dixon Crucible Company produced a whole line of automotive graphite based lubricants, and the advertisements for these products tell the whole story of the Dixon and the automobile for, as you can see, even a pencil manufacturer is right at home in the automobile industry!