Karim’s interview with Henry

Children in Goma, Congo with pencils from the PFA students

Question from Karim:

Henry, what do you think of the initiative of Pencils for Africa (PFA) students to send pencils to children in Goma, Congo who have lost their parents in the civil war there ?


Henry Petroski, Professor of Engineering, Duke University

Response from Henry:

The Pencils for Africa student enthusiasm reminds me of the story of Salom Rizk.

Just as it was Jackson Kaguri’s childhood experience to be grateful for one-fifth of a pencil, so that he could go to school in Africa, so as an orphan in Syria, Salom counted a stubby fraction of a pencil as a prized possession. In the 1950s, when Salom was older and living in America, he organized a drive he called “Pencils for Democracy,” whose goal was to collect pencils to send to poor schoolchildren around the world.

War and pencils have long crossed paths.

— Henry

In the wake of World War II, a similar effort was also carried out by Camp Fire Girls, who collected pencils to send to war-ravaged Europe. So, these the Pencils for Africa students are carrying on a great tradition by collecting pencils now to send to needy children in Africa.


In the wake of World War II, a similar effort was also carried out by Camp Fire Girls, who collected pencils to send to war-ravaged Europe.

War and pencils have long crossed paths.


Factory Pencils being mechanically sharpened 

In 1793, when war broke out between France and Britain, France could not easily import pencils and could not secure sufficient supplies of good graphite to make  pencils of its own.

Since war, revolution, education, and day-to-day commerce could not get on without pencils, it was a crisis situation for the country, and a matter of national defense. The Minister of War encouraged French engineers and researchers to come up with a way that inferior graphite, which was available in France, could be used to make good-quality pencils.


(Nicolas-Jacques) Conte Sketching Pencils

The young engineer and inventor Nicolas-Jacques Conte took up the challenge and developed a way to purify poor graphite and to combine it with clay to make pencil leads that were excellent.

This process enabled France to establish an independent pencil industry, and the French process soon became the basis for excellent pencils made throughout the world. Indeed, it became the world standard. Chances are that any pencils we use today are made using the French process of combining refined graphite with high-quality clay developed by Conte.

The story of the French pencils illustrates how revolutionary ideas and excellent results can come out of the most dire of circumstances.