When Were Pencil Erasers Invented?
Pencil erasers were invented in 1752 by a Frenchman named Magellan. He found that small lumps of caoutchouc (Kuchuk), as rubber was first called, could rub off pencil marks much better than the bread crumbs that were then being used for erasing. Because of its wide use as an eraser to “rub” out pencil marks, caoutchouc was given the name “rubber.”
It wasn’t until a hundred years later that another inventor thought of fastening the eraser to the pencil. Thus, we don’t have to hunt around for an eraser when we make a mistake.
In 1858, a stationer named Hymen Lipman patented a newfangled pencil with a rubber plug embedded in one end of its wood shaft. An entrepreneur named Joseph Reckendorfer guessed that the pencil-plus-eraser would become a blockbuster product and bought the patent from Lipman for $100,000, about $2 million in today’s dollars. Had that patent held up, Reckendorfer might have become a titan of industry. By the 1920s, almost all of the pencils sold in America included erasers.
But unfortunately for Reckendorfer, the Supreme Court ruled in 1875 that the eraser-tipped pencil didn’t count as a legitimate invention. “In the eyes of the court, all that Lipman had done was combine an eraser, which was a known technology, with the pencil, which was a known technology,” says Henry Petroski, author of “The Pencil,” a book on the history and design of the tool. Because Reckendorfer lost the case, companies like A. W. Faber could use Lipman’s design without paying any royalties.
Nearly 60 years after Lipman’s innovation, the rubber-tipped pencil became a hit. So much so that in 1915 it inspired a sermon by the Rev. Silas Delmar Conger, who praised the built-in eraser as a symbol of American resilience and pluck. “To keep our past failures ever before us would cause us to continue to fail,” he said. So “take out your pencil, rub out the mark and start over again.”
Petroski says that even though Americans expect their pencils to come equipped with erasers, this design failed to catch on in many countries. “If you’re traveling outside the United States, you may notice that it’s hard to find a pencil with an eraser on it,” he says.
So does our pencil say something about us as a people? A writer for a 1922 issue of American Stationer and Office Outfitter thought so: “Throughout Europe, the rubber-tipped pencil is practically unknown,” they wrote. “It may be that foreigners consider themselves less apt to make mistakes than the happy-go-lucky Americans.”