Throughout human history startling technological leaps have made life easier and work more efficient. According to the folks at Pencil.com (who ought to know) pencils have been around in various forms since the 16th century. Long acknowledged as an improvement over earlier writing implements, sharpening them had always been kind of a hassle; whittling with a knife requires a skilled hand.
But then in 1828 a Frenchman named Bernard Lassimone invented the first mechanical pencil sharpener. As noted by The Early Office Museum, this sharpener employed small metal files set at 90 degrees in a block of wood and worked to scrape and grind the edges of the pencil’s tip.
Since it wasn’t all that much faster than whittling, it didn’t catch on, which is why in 1847 another Frenchman named Therry des Estwaux improved on Lassimone’s design and came up with the first sharpener that worked by twisting the pencil in a conical housing, a design known today as a prism sharpener.
Fast on the heels of this advancement, Walter K. Foster patented the first American pencil sharpener in 1851, improving on Estwaux’s cone shaped design and making it so the tool could be easily mass produced.
Perhaps it was because of the advent of reliable prism sharpeners, or maybe it was just serendipitous timing, but 10 years later in 1861 Eberhard Faber established the first pencil factory in New York City and pencils were suddenly widely available.
As is often the case with technology, an improvement in design begets advancements in production which in turn calls for further improvements in design. Such was the case with pencil sharpeners. All sorts of variations on grinding, twisting and scraping emerged in pencil sharpener design throughout the late 19th century (see the images at The Early Office Museum) but they all had one major flaw; they required the user to hold the sharpener steady and turn the pencil or hold the pencil steady and turn the sharpener. Either way, the result was often broken lead.
The answer was to hold to hold both the pencil and sharpener steady and let the inner workings move uniformly over the pencil, sharpening it. The first attempts to implement such a design incorporated sandpaper and/or blades neither of which worked very well.
Then in 1896 the A.B. Dick Planetary Pencil Pointer was patented. This sharpener, according to The Early Office Museum, used two milling disks which “revolved around their axis as they orbited the tip of the pencil”, what’s called a planetary mechanism.
But just like Estwaux’s early prism sharpener needed a final tweak before it was ready for prime time, the A.B. Dick Pencil Pointer needed one final twist before it became the crank sharpeners so familiar to school children of the 60’s and 70’s. In 1904 the Olcott Climax Pencil Sharpener provided it, utilizing a cylindrical cutting head with spiral cutting edges in a planetary mechanism. With the lone exception of the exquisitely simple prism sharpener, this new design left all the other designs in the dust.
The next major advancement in pencil sharpeners saw its first incarnation as early as 1910, but electric pencil sharpeners didn’t become commercially viable until the 1940’s. Their utility was obvious. Now a user could hold their hand perfectly still, insert the pencil and moments later remove it sharpened. It was practically magic.
Pencil sharpeners have come a long way since whittling with a knife and what often looked like the final answer to an earlier problem needed a few improvements of its own before it caught on, but today’s pencil sharpeners provide great utility at a reasonable price. One could say the technology has been honed to a fine point.