In 1827, Joseph Dixon moved to Salem and opened a factory on North Street to build his high temperature crucibles. His wife Hannah Martin was the daughter of the carpenter who helped him make the pencil. At the same time, still concentrating on graphite and its uses, he invented lubricants and a stove polish which addressed the rust problem that plagued the cast iron stoves most people owned.
Continuing his work with graphite, he invented a hand-cranked machine to mass produce pencils. To make the pencils you had to process the graphite with clay to make the leads and then cut and groove cedar wood for the holder. His machine could produce hundreds of pencils daily. He got his black lead, graphite, from the Lead Mills on the Salem Marblehead line.
George Peabody, who later became a banker, would sell his pencils through local cities and towns. While his stove polish, lubricants, and crucibles were successful, the pencils were not big sellers.
Dixon also had a variety of other inventions. He worked with another inventor, Isaac Babbitt, to develop babbitt metal that was used in machinery where friction usually destroyed the metal. This metal is still used in automobile engines. It is also written that Dixon assisted Fulton with his steam engine. He also produced a galvanic battery (Was it used on Richard Crowninshield Jr.?) and even designed a method for tunneling under water. Something that could be useful to Salem smugglers…
He also made advances in photography creating the prototypes for the single lens reflex camera. He developed new chemical processes for colour lithography and used those to invent currency for the U.S. government that was difficult to counterfeit. He also invented gold and silver melting crucibles for the U.S. Mint for making coins.
It was not till the Civil War did officers see the advantage of the pencil being more portable than ink an quill for quick dispatches. It was not till after his death did his company make a fortune on the pencil making it a household item. The standard #2 Dixon Ticonderoga pencil, the pencil of choice to fill those ovals in with…
For more tales like this about how Salem MA has shaped American History read Sub Rosa by Christopher Jon Luke Dowgin available at Barnes & Nobel, Amazon.com, and your favorite local independent book seller.
Ask for it by name!