Despite the deep penetration of digital tools into our lives, a lot of mathematics is still written by hand in pencil, and so it is appropriate that the Palomino Blackwing Volumes 16.2 pencil is a tribute to Ada Lovelace, the 19th century mathematician who worked on Charles Babbage’s proposed Analytical Engine.

The Palomino Blackwing, from California Cedar Products Company, is a modern version of the Blackwing pencil produced up until 1998 by the Eberhard Faber Pencil Company. The Blackwing was a favorite of luminaries such as John Steinbeck and Leonard Bernstein, and was much missed until CalCedar acquired the brand and started production of its own version of the pencil in 2011. Blackwing Volumes are limited editions “celebrating the people, places and events that have defined our creative culture”.

The 16.2 in the volume name refers to the Analytical Engine’s storage capacity of 16.2 kB (enough to hold one thousand 40 decimal digit numbers). The matt white finish and matt black ferrule are “inspired by the simple styling of early personal computers”. The rear of the pencil contains a pattern that represents in binary the initials AAL that Lovelace used to sign her work.

Blackwing pencils are available with four different graphite hardnesses, of which the 16.2 is the second firmest, roughly equivalent to a B, and the same as for the regular Blackwing 602. The following test compares the 16.2 with the Blackwing (no number, and the softest), the Dixon Ticonderoga HB, and the Staedtler Noris HB. The paper is Clairefontaine and the shaded area shows a smear test where I rubbed my thumb over the shaded rectangle.

The pencils come in packs of 12 and are available at, for example Bureau Direct (UK), pencils.com (USA), and JetPens (USA). If you’re in New York City, pop into Caroline Weaver’s wonderful CW Pencil Enterprise store.

One review has suggested that a harder graphite (as in certain other limited editions) would be better for writing mathematics. For me the 16.2 core is fine, but I also enjoy using the softer Blackwing cores. For a mathematician, as for any writer, having to pause to sharpen a pencil is not necessarily a bad thing, especially as the shavings give off a wonderful odor of the California incense cedar from which the barrels are made.