A pencil that never lost its point was the first product made by what electronics company?

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Published February 15, 2024

Duh! is a weekly column that gives circuitous answers to obvious questions. If you dig it, you can find 100 more of these essays in the Geeks Who Drink book, Duh!.

We know, we know. You, dear reader, are desperate for a history of the mechanical pencil. And the good news is that pencils.com has already done that for you, including the fact that the Ever-Ready Sharp Pencil–invented in 1915 by then 21-year-old Hayakawa Tokuji, founder of Sharp Electronics–was the first one with a clutch precise enough to be used for drafting. Nice!

If you dig further–and why wouldn’t you?–you’ll find out that the Ever-Ready Sharp Pencil is often confused with the Eversharp pencil, created in 1913 by Midwesterner Charles Keeran using very fine leads he sourced from Joseph Dixon (of Dixon Ticonderoga)1. Keeran sold this one at Wanamaker’s department store in Manhattan over the Christmas holidays at $2-$3 a pop ($61-$92 today), and though that’s objectively a crazy amount of money, apparently he had a hard time keeping up with demand.

Both creators suffered great hardship early in their careers as mechanical-pencil pioneers, one in truly tragic fashion that explains why his pencils are hard to find these days (but also why he became an electronics giant), and the other a sort of classic business screwjob.

Starting with the latter, Keeran ran into trouble expanding the Eversharp business. In 1915, just a couple years after that Christmas bonanza, he contacted the Wahl Adding Machine Company to see about buying some machinery, but instead found out they were looking to get into the stationery business. They bought a controlling stake in Eversharp for $20,000 ($604,000 in 2024), which isn’t bad–except that two years after that they forced him out with a $2,500 parting gift, and proceeded to sell 12 million pencils by 1921.2 After that, Keeran hooked up with some Chicago manufacturers to form Autopoint, which stayed in business until the 1970s.

Meanwhile, the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake leveled Hayakawa’s factory just three years after he secured his twist-pencil patent. Worse than that, an ensuing fire killed his young family. He settled some debts by selling his patent to an Osaka-based manufacturer, and moved from Tokyo to consult. But soon his mind wandered, and by 1925 he led a team that developed Japan’s first crystal radio. Sharp Electronics soon came to dominate that market, and kept innovating from there:

  • In 1952, they built Japan’s first domestically produced TV, setting in motion a chain of events that would lead to Takeshi’s Castle.
  • In 1958, they created a quiet air conditioner, which didn’t need a compressor because it pumped in water from underground. We would still like one of those.
  • In 1960, they made a microwave oven that cost as much as a car… and four years later they made a 55-pound calculator that also cost as much as a car. Weirdly enough, they never just, you know, made cars.

Nowadays Sharp is probably best known for its Aquos TV line.3 As for Hayakawa, he died in 1980, a ripe 86 years old and the chairman of a company that now does $15 billion in annual sales. And in a case at their Osaka headquarters, you’ll find a whole bunch of his mechanical pencils.

  1. As it happens, Dixon’s iconic yellow No. 2 pencil debuted that very same year. Other things from 1913: The 16th and 17th Amendments, the riot at Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring, and America’s first transcontinental highway for cars (spoiler alert: It’s Interstate 80 now).
  2. In the mid ‘40s, the since-rechristened Eversharp Company made a big bad batch of that new invention, the ballpoint pen, which wrecked its finances and sent it to the grave by 1957. This was no consolation to Keeran, who died in ‘48.
  3. Actually styled AQUOS, which suggests that it’s an acronym of some kind. Always Quit Using Other Sets? Take that, Vizio!