The Enormous Complexity of Things ™


I have of late, Parishioners,

been thinkan ‘bout The Enormous Complexity of Things ™


how do y make pins?

How much would one pin cost to make?

What enormously sophisticated & expensive machinery would be required

to make something so simple & inexpensive?

Who would go to all that effort & expense?

Where’s the profit?

I wanted to know how they are made

Adam Smith employed the imagery of a pin factory as the perfect example of the intricate division of labor. In his book, Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, Smith described how one worker drew out the wire, another straightened it, a third cut the wire, the fourth sharpened one end, and another worker ground the opposite end for the attachment of the head. At the end of the process, the pins were polished and inserted into paper packets. These early pin factories produced just under 5,000 pins per day.

The Modern Manufacturing Process

In the modern pin manufacturing plant, hundreds of thousands of pins are produced daily. Although several United States companies produce and sell straight pins, virtually all of the manufacturing plants are in Asia.

  1. One-hundred-foot rolls of steel wire are unwound by means of a roll straightener. The end of each roll is threaded into the straightener, which pulls the wire flat. Rotating blades cut the wire into pre-set lengths, usually between 1-1.25 in (2.5-3.2 cm) long.
  2. The cut wire travels via conveyer belt to the next station where the heads are “stamped” on. One end of the wire is slammed against a block. This sharp blow causes the end to mushroom out from the shank of the wire and create a flattened head.
  3. The pins are loaded into a circular cavity where they are hung by their heads over large grinding wheels. The grinding wheels spin the pins around to sharpen them.
  4. To ensure a strong bond between the pins and the plating solution, the pins are cleaned by dipping them in an acid solution. They are then are placed in a rack and lowered into large electroplating tanks filled with a plating solution such as nickel sulfate. The pin rack is connected to the negative terminal of an external source of electricity. A second conductor is connected to the plating solution. A steady, direct electrical current of a low voltage, between one to six volts, is passed through the tanks. This causes the plating solution to coat the pins and give them a shiny finish.
  5. The shined pins are mechanically packed in pre-ordered amounts into plastic clamshell boxes or blister packs. Bar codes are mechanically affixed to each box or pack. The individual containers are then hand-packed into cartons for shipping.

Then today

reading Kottke

I came across an article entitled “I, Pencil

Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) founded FEE in 1946 and served as its president until his death. “I, Pencil,” his most famous essay, was first published in the December 1958 issue of The Freeman.

I am a lead pencil – the ordinary wooden pencil familiar to all boys and girls and adults who can read and write.*

* My official name is “Mongol 482” My many ingredients are assembled, fabricated, and finished by Eberhard Faber Pencil Company.

Writing is both my vocation and my avocation; that’s all I do.

Just as you cannot trace your family tree back very far, so is it impossible for me to name and explain all my antecedents. But I would like to suggest enough of them to impress upon you the richness and complexity of my background.

My family tree begins with what in fact is a tree, a cedar of straight grain that grows in Northern California and Oregon. Now contemplate all the saws and trucks and rope and the countless other gear used in harvesting and carting the cedar logs to the railroad siding. Think of all the persons and the numberless skills that went into their fabrication: the mining of ore, the making of steel and its refinement into saws, axes, motors; the growing of hemp and bringing it through all the stages to heavy and strong rope; the logging camps with their beds and mess halls, the cookery and the raising of all the foods. Why, untold thousands of persons had a hand in every cup of coffee the loggers drink!

The logs are shipped to a mill in San Leandro, California. Can you imagine the individuals who make flat cars and rails and railroad engines and who construct and install the communication systems incidental thereto? These legions are among my antecedents.

Consider the millwork in San Leandro. The cedar logs are cut into small, pencil-length slats less than one-fourth of an inch in thickness. These are kiln dried and then tinted for the same reason women put rouge on their faces. People prefer that I look pretty, not a pallid white. The slats are waxed and kiln dried again. How many skills went into the making of the tint and the kilns, into supplying the heat, the light and power, the belts, motors, and all the other things a mill requires? Sweepers in the mill among my ancestors? Yes, and included are the men who poured the concrete for the dam of a Pacific Gas & Electric Company hydroplant which supplies the mill’s power!

Don’t overlook the ancestors present and distant who have a hand in transporting sixty carloads of slats across the nation.

Once in the pencil factory – $4,000,000 in machinery and building, all capital accumulated by thrifty and saving parents of mine – each slat is given eight grooves by a complex machine, after which another machine lays leads in every other slat, applies glue, and places another slat atop – a lead sandwich, so to speak. Seven brothers and I are mechanically carved from this “wood-clinched” sandwich.

My “lead” itself – it contains no lead at all – is complex. The graphite is mined in Ceylon. Consider these miners and those who make their many tools and the makers of the paper sacks in which the graphite is shipped and those who make the string that ties the sacks and those who put them aboard ships and those who make the ships. Even the lighthouse keepers along the way assisted in my birth – and the harbor pilots.

The graphite is mixed with clay from Mississippi in which ammonium hydroxide is used in the refining process. Then wetting agents are added such as sulfonated tallow – animal fats chemically reacted with sulfuric acid. After passing through numerous machines, the mixture finally appears as endless extrusions – as from a sausage grinder – cut to size, dried, and baked for several hours at 1,850 degrees Fahrenheit. To increase their strength and smoothness the leads are then treated with a hot mixture which includes candelilla wax from Mexico, paraffin wax, and hydrogenated natural fats.

My cedar receives six coats of lacquer. Do you know all the ingredients of lacquer? Who would think that the growers of castor beans and the refiners of castor oil are a part of it? They are. Why, even the processes by which the lacquer is made a beautiful yellow involves the skills of more persons than one can enumerate!

Observe the labeling. That’s a film formed by applying heat to carbon black mixed with resins. How do you make resins and what, pray, is carbon black?

My bit of metal – the ferrule – is brass. Think of all the persons who mine zinc and copper and those who have the skills to make shiny sheet brass from these products of nature. Those black rings on my ferrule are black nickel. What is black nickel and how is it applied? The complete story of why the center of my ferrule has no black nickel on it would take pages to explain.

Then there’s my crowning glory, inelegantly referred to in the trade as “the plug,” the part man uses to erase the errors he makes with me. An ingredient called “factice” is what does the erasing. It is a rubber-like product made by reacting rape-seed oil from the Dutch East Indies with sulfur chloride. Rubber, contrary to the common notion, is only for binding purposes. Then, too, there are numerous vulcanizing and accelerating agents. The pumice comes from Italy; and the pigment which gives “the plug” its color is cadmium sulfide.

This, Parishioners,

is what keeps me from Sleep

* * * UPDATE * * *

BoingBoing roadtests the new Blackwing pencil

• NB has a stronger, spicy smell. Reminded me of Indian food. Not unpleasant. OB’s smell is faint, but this could be due to its age (at least 2 years old)

• NB is quieter on the paper

New Blackwing pencil v Old Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 pencil

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] simply updated a previous post with this Good […]

  2. Its likke you read my thoughts! You appear to knokw
    a lot about this, like you wreote the e-book in it or something.
    I think tat you can ddo with some % tto pressure the message home a little bit, but other than that, tht is wonderful blog.
    A fantastic read. I’ll cdrtainly be back.

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