In English graduate school my main focus was on technologies of writing, specifically the printing press. Imagine my surprise, then, to learn that I live right around the corner from the nursery (if not actual birthplace) of another such technology: the mechanical pencil.*


Our neigborhood of Roscoe Village in Chicago has seen its ups and downs over the decades. The latest up-cycle was begun in 1980 when the huge Eversharp Pencil Factory at Ravenswood and Roscoe was converted to residential condos, the largest industrial transformation of its kind in Chicago at the time, galvanizing re-development of the area. The Pencil Factory Lofts is an anomaly in our neighborhood of relatively low-density single-family homes, but I’m a little prouder of it each time I walk by now that I know its story.

In 1913 a chap from Bloomington, Illinois named Charles Keeran came up with the idea of fitting a metal stylus with replaceable lead inserts. This became the Eversharp mechanical pencil. He allied himself with Wahl Adding Machine Company (of Wahl clipper fame today — apparently someone else took the adding machine market around this time). In 1917 this partnership turned ugly when Wahl forced Keeran out and began marketing the pencils as Eversharp, a brand which continues to this day. Nearly all of these Pencils of the Future were churned out of the factory at Ravenswood and Roscoe.

In homage to the former life of the factory the developers of the loft painted giant pencils on the side of the water tank atop its roof. Actually they painted regular #2 pencils up there, presumably because mechanical pencils look a lot like pens and that would, you know, defeat the homage. But the tank isn’t there anymore. I went out to take a picture of it yesterday and I could not see it. Either I’m snowblind or it has been removed.

So, next time you use a mechanical pencil please pause to thank my humble neighborhood. Actually, does anyone use mechanical pencils anymore?

* It would have changed the world, too, if not for corrective paper fluid. Curse you Wite-Out!