Books, news, & views from Karen Traviss

Everyday engineering

I know this sounds like a line from The Testing of Eric Olthwaite, but pencils can be even more interesting than shovels wi' brass bits on 'em.

You probably know I'm a bit obsessed with fountain pens, but like all addictions, it leads you on to other habits. I do pencils too. If you use writing instruments a lot in your job, you might as well have ones that delight you, and my current object of admiration is the Pentel Orenz. It doesn't look that exceptional from the outside, but the bits inside are really pretty damn amazing. Which led to me considering how much clever and unnoticed engineering is all around us.

The Orenz uses a 0.2mm lead – that's the thinnest lead available, almost hair-fine – and it has a clever sleeve mechanism that stops that ultra-fine lead breaking. I ended up field stripping it just to admire its genius. The cone was as beautiful and intricate as the tiny components of a watch. Lead that fine is very hard to handle with your fingers because it's so fragile, so making an advancing mechanism that doesn't snap it impresses the hell out of me.

I've only seen the Orenz for sale here. I have another 0.2mm Pentel pencil with a conventional mechanical action, and the lead breaks all the time unless I use the hardest grade. But the Orenz can handle a B grade lead without firing pieces everywhere when you press too hard. The steel sleeve retracts as you write, exposing just enough lead to make a mark, until it almost vanishes completely and you click the button to release another length.

Whenever I see an everyday thing that's taken for granted, be it a machine that adds caramel sauce to swirls of ice cream as it's pumped into a plastic container, or a pencil that can handle fragile, thinner-than-needle-thin lead, I think of the clever buggers who created it. God bless engineers and industrial designers.