Friday, April 17, 2009

What Is Really In a Lead Holder?

I was scrambling around for a number 2 lead pencil this morning so I could fill out a questionnaire as a prospective juror for the United States District Court in Topeka. The only pencil I could find on short notice was one of the lead holders I once used as a technical draftsman.

For all the new people on the planet, technical drafting was once done with pencils and scales, by hand, on paper, using the same angled triangles the Greeks used in their engineering. A lead holder was a weighted mechanical pencil that held long, thin pieces of graphite in various grades of softness. An HB weight was exceedingly soft graphite that would smear. 2H lead was the standard drawing weight, using light construction lines. Later, a slightly softer graphite was used to draw the object.

I enjoyed being a technical draftsman. It was a craft that I learned and then worked to become better. It was a genuine thrill the first time I saw something built in reality that I had first constructed on paper.

When the computer replaced the traditional drafting tools, it was never as fun nor as pleasurable. At first it felt as if I was trying to draw without hands, and the level of frustration was extremely high. But I soon learned to use the software, and the speed at which a technical drawing could be produced was amazing. Even though editing the drawing was a breeze by comparison, it still elicited the same frustrated response from the draftsmen whenever an engineer wanted changes. Those darn engineers! They felt no compunction in wasting a draftsman's time with revisions.

My company invested in main frame drafting, the same software Boeing used to design its planes. It was so accurate that the space shuttle could have been designed with it. (As far as I know, the shuttle was designed with that software.) It was the most elegant technical design software ever invented. It was obvious it had been created by engineers and highly skilled technical drafting people. It was awesome. It was intuitive, clean, fast, accurate, and a draftsman could fly through constructing a drawing in full size, then print the drawings out to scale. There was no longer any guess work if something would or would not fit correctly into a space because an object was created in true size in cyberspace. It was a bit mind boggling, in truth.

That mainframe company merged with a giant French software company, and the program became so expensive, the technical capability so highly advanced, that it would have been foolish to continue using such sophisticated software for the relatively simple technical drawings required in our company. I hated to see that mainframe capability go away. I will always count myself lucky to have had the use of the Boeing software to ply my trade. It made me proud to be a tiny graphite mark in the long tradition of engineers and technical people who have produced the mechanical world we live in - starting with the pyramid builders, right up through today.

My company replaced that computer assisted drafting (CAD) system with a desktop version of the Boeing software that, along with a third party software that gave us 3D capability. That was very exciting. An object need only be constructed once rather than constructed in each of its various views. I was promoted to supervisor soon after and no longer had to draw so I only got a taste of that electronic marvel.

Tragedy struck when our particular business within our company was sold to another corporation. We lost the desktop 3D software and were forced to a generic CAD system created by computer geeks. It was not a software designed by engineers and draftsmen and it was a mess! It was clunky, key stroke intensive, counter intuitive, and version 13 of that software almost wiped that business out. It was a typical cheap American solution, pieced and patched together, like a popular work of art mass reproduced in tawdry colors. I was glad I was no longer a draftsman at that point.

Much has happened since those old drafting days, in my life, and in the technical drafting field. I have had a successful career working for my company through its various iterations. My career path never rose very high, hardly a bump, really. It has been interesting nevertheless. My job has provided a solid and stable foundation for my life, which was certainly needed at times. When I found the old lead holder today, I was happy to have been reminded of those early days of drawing with graphite and scales when it was a satisfying skill. I liked recalling the pride I took in my work.

The technical drafting skill does translate into my personal life. I designed and built a rabbit hutch for my son when he was a little boy, and recently built a chicken coop. Frank Lloyd Wright, eat your heart out!


Anonymous said...

I don't need pencils. I have a few lead holders and a couple of rotary pointers. (For the uninitiated, think 'pencil sharpener for lead holder') Pencils and the dumbputer mouse just don't have the same feel to them. I never earned a living with the tools. They were used for my own amazement. Even though now I do almost everything with my dumbputer, I can't force myself to give away my ancient artifacts. Too many memories, I suppose.

Jackie said...

Welllll, ancient people know how to use the ancient artifacts!