16.2 13

I’m still not up to date in the world of stationery, so please excuse if this blog post does not include all information, but when I noticed the name Ada Lovelace in the latest Pen Addict Podcast Show Notes I had to have a look.

As you might now CalCedar is releasing themed Blackwings at regular intervals. They tend to have a number linked to the theme. This time the theme is “Ada Lovelace”, considered by many to be the first computer programmer1, and the number is 16.2.

Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage and Eberhard Faber’s Blackwing

My first university degree was in Computer Science, so this theme certainly made me curious and I followed the link to Blackwing’s web site.

So what does 16.2 stand for? According to CalCedar

The number 16.2 is a nod to the Analytical Engine’s storage capacity of 16.2 kB (0.00005% the storage of the average smartphone) and the backside of each pencil bears a binary pattern stamp of Ada’s initials AAL, the same initials she used to sign her work.

My first thought: if anything this seems more of a number for a Charles Babbage themed pencil. Storage capacity is hardware, Babbage thought of the Analytical Engine, Ada Lovelace was more about algorithms for the Analytical Engine (she made a famous translation of Menabrea’s Analytical Engine article that contained her computer program as notes) and about promoting the Engine.

My second thought: why use kB? I am not an expert in the Analytical Engine, but it was based on the decimal number system, it wasn’t binary based! The only way such a conversion would make sense would be if you wanted to compare the storage capacity to a modern machine, but it only makes sense if you want to implement the same storage capacity on a modern computer, as a simple comparison it doesn’t work because it’s not a simple as some other conversions, like converting Fahrenheit to Celsius – because of the way modern computers work there’s no 1:1 comparison.

Here’s an example. A number with one digit can be anything from 0 to 9, i.e. there are 10 possibilities. If you want to store this number in a modern, binary computer you have to use four bits. Each bit gives you two possibilities (0 or 1). If you have two bits you have four possible numbers (22 = 4) you can represent (00,01,10,11). Three bits give you eight possibilities (23 = 8), i.e. everything from 000 to 111. Four bits give you 16 possibilities (24 = 16). You want to represent one decimal digit (ten possibilities) in binary you need four bits, but you also get some waste (as you could actually represent 16 numbers). So why convert to binary?

My third thought: Where did this number come from. Ah, ok. Wikipedia says in the Analytical engine “There was to be a store (that is, a memory) capable of holding 1,000 numbers of 40 decimal digits each (ca. 16.2 kB)”2.

OK, I get it. The number is from Wikipedia.

A quick check:

40 digits each, 1041 = 2x, 2133 = 1.08 * 1040, 133 bits per 40 digit number

133*1000= 133,000 Bits, 133,000 / 8 = 16,628 Bytes, /1024 = 16.24 kB.

…but the Analytical Engine was an idea, not something that was actually built at the time. Babbage himself wrote

“In the drawings I have prepared I proposed to have a thousand variables, upon each of which any number not having more than fifty figures can be placed.”3

Based on 50 digit figures, as described by Babbage in his 1864 book, the number on this pencil should be

1051 = 2x, 2167 = 1.87 * 1050, 167 bits per 50 digit number

167*1000= 167,000 Bits, 167,000 / 8 = 20,875 Bytes, /1024 = 20.39 kB.

To me, it looks like a poor Wikipedia copy and paste job, done without love or understanding of Ada Lovelace.

My imagination might be running wild here, but I imagine it like this.

We need a new person-themed Blackwing. Pick a pioneer who is not a white male.

I found one on the Internet. There’s a woman who was a programmer.

Great, look at her Wikipedia page and pick a number.

Got it.

Great job. Let’s finish early and go home.

The whole theme seems to have been put together without the due care and attention Ada Lovelace deserves.


Before I finish: there’s actually a quote from Ada Lovelace where she mentions pencils. You can see it on Google Books.

The comic book you can see in the picture is called The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer. The edition I got is long sod out but you can still get the US version (hardcover released in 2015) or paperback ..or the UK paperback edition from 2016.

If you would like to learn more about Ada Lovelace have a look at

Untangling the Tale of Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace’s translation of the Menabrea article. 

  1. even though computers didn’t exist yet []
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Analytical_Engine&oldid=813062715 []
  3. Chapter VIII, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher, by Charles Babbage, 1864 []

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13 thoughts on “16.2

  • Amro

    I absolutely agree with your analysis and conclusions.

    But then the Blackwing is similarly brought back from the dead; like imagining Moleskine have anything to do with the original ones beloved of famous writers from another age.

  • Myrto

    I do understand your point and all in all agree. As an electronics engineer myself, I also find the final product a little bit disappointing. The color scheme is a total failure; it looks like a StarWars themed Blackwing. The stamping of her initials in a binary form is a pretty neat idea, but perhaps better suited for someone else like George Boole.

    That said, I understand that this is just a handful of people. It is impossible for them to have the passion, knowledge of small details, and expertise in every field known to mankind. It is to be expected that Blackwings dedicated to people that are not their role models may not do justice the person they are meant to commemorate.

    So, what are the options? They could either limit themselves to people they actually admire and have researched (artists I guess?). They could reduce the amount of LEs so that they have some time to do more research (still without guarantee of success) or they could continue to do what they are doing and hopefully sometime they will come up with something extremely good.

    I would prefer option 2, but I am ok with option 3. We can always skip a volume or two if we don’t appreciate it. And at the very least, even this uninspired edition raised awareness of an unfortunately not widely known to the general public scientist.

    The thing I find a little bit disturbing is the effort to lure more people into subscription. The CalCedar limited edition Blackwing (in a very popular finish that people have been asking for repeatedly) only available to subscribers is not something that I appreciate.

  • Sean

    Thanks for these details, Memm! The phrase “…done without love or understanding…” is a potent observation.

  • llaughy

    You have made a perfect analysis of the Palomino Blackwing marketing plan – all surface, no depth. As usual, things don’t add up with this latest release. Thank you for this refreshing post!

  • Gunther

    By looking again at the 16.2 pencil I have the impression that they are desperately looking for reasons to isssue their “Volumes” … I wonder what’s next. Have they honoured a chef already? I bet there is a famous one who uses a pencil to write down his best recipes.

  • Sean

    I’m waiting for the ‘Blackwing’ Volumes Eberhard Faber tribute to the Eberhard Faber Blackwing, the “602” 602. That would possibly be the world’s first recursive ‘tribute’ pencil.

    Or better yet, the Volumes tribute to the ‘Blackwing’ Volumes tributes: all of the numbers stamped on one pencil.

  • Gunther

    Sean, the recursive ‘tribute’ pencil is a great idea!
    They should also consider an edition which honours a Zen master by issuing no pencil.

  • Guillermo de la Maza

    Gunther: Seeing how many hoarders are buying into these pencils, I can see many people buying that Zen edition, anxiously opening their empty boxes, grabbing it on video, and posting reviews of it on YouTube exclaiming “this is amazing, they not only gave you a non-existent pencil, but also the possibility to imagine it with your preferred lead. This is genius!”. Then proudly displaying their empty tuve on their shelves.
    Wouldn’t even be amazed if it sold out!

  • Matthias

    Thank you very much for your kind comments. I certainly didn’t expect so many comments on this post. I guess there’s something about a multi-million Dollar company trying to sell one of the most expensive pencils on the planet without putting the necessary effort in that upsets quite people who like stationery.

    Amro, I agree. What sells the pencil is (for many) the story, but if the story is not right why not buy the pencil in another colour combination (instead of the Lovelace colour scheme).

    Myrto, you are right, but I think if they don’t have the knowledge they should get outside help. It is after all (I am repeating myself) one of the most expensive pencils on the planet. In the end the limited editions are just the same product with a different paint job (ok, I am simplifying, but just to make a point). Field Notes does a much better job, it is not always the same paper with a different cover, they do have innovations in-between. I agree that the ‘luring into subcription’ model is disturbing.

    Gunther, I am happy you liked it.

    The Economical Penster, I amnot sure how good or bad their other editions are. I only looked at this one because of my interest in computer science. I hope the other editions are better fitting for the theme they picked.

    Sean, thank you. It wouldn’t hurt so much if they weren’t a multi million Dollar company trying to make money from this. If it was someone doing this on Etsy I wouldn’t have used a tone like this in my blog post.

    llaughy, thank you. If the other editions are similar then I am happy I haven’t looked at them. I might only get upset…

    Gunther, Gordan Ramsay is a famous chef here in the UK, but I don’t think he is using the CalCedar Blackwings… ( https://bleistift.blog/2011/09/the-ubiquitous-staedtler-pencils/ ) 😜

    Sean, I’m worried they will charge $602 for that pencil…

    MP, I am happy you liked it.

    Gunther, I think you just found a way of lowering the pencil per Dollar ratio even further.

    Guillermo de la Maza, that is really funny and made me laugh.

  • Michael Leddy

    The whole tribute idea seems to me to blend dumbness and tastelessness in varying proportions (as with the tribute to Dorothea Lange). Your analysis of what’s wrong this time around is pretty stunning.