Today, we are going to learn about an item that we use everyday but rarely give any thought: the pencil.
The word pencil is derived from the Latin penicillus, or “little tail” (also the root of the word penis…go figure!). The first object that was ever referred to as a pencil was actually a tiny French paintbrush of camel hair. The image below is of the earliest known wooden graphite pencil, from the Faber-Castell collection.
Graphite is Discovered:
The invention of the modern graphite pencil was made possible when a massive deposit of graphite was discovered in Borrowdale, England in the mid 16th century. Pure graphite had never been found before, and it was first thought to be a variety of lead (which is why we still refer to pencils as ‘lead pencils’). It wasn’t until the 18th century that a Swedish chemist discovered that the substance was crystalized carbon, and named it Graphite, from the Greek word for writing, ‘Graphein’.
English shepherds were some of the first people to use graphite, marking identification information on the sides of their sheep. Graphite was next used by the British navy to line the barrels of cannons. It worked as a lubricant and allowed for greater range and accuracy. The potential of graphite for making precision writing tools was soon realized, but its brittleness was a problem. The first graphite pencils were wrapped in string or sheepskin for stability.
The idea to encase graphite in wood appeared in Italy later in the 16th century. The first method of manufacturing was to carve the centre out from a small stick and jam a piece of graphite into it. This was very labour intensive however, and a method involving the gluing together of two carved halves was soon invented. This is still how we manufacture pencils today.
A major barrier to the mass-production of pencils was the limited availability of graphite; the deposit in Borrowdale is still the only quanity of pure graphite that has ever been found. During the Napoleonic War, France was cut off from England and its supply of graphite pencils. Nicholas Conté discovered that he could mix together clay and powdered graphite (of which there was plenty in France) to graphite rods. This allowed for the production of varying darkness of pencil, leading to the HB system we see today.
Pencils in the USA:
American colonists significantly advanced the pencil in the 18th century. Benjamin Franklin and Henry David Thoreau both innovated new ways of manufacturing pencils more efficiently. A Massachusetts man named Ebenezer Wood was the first to make 6 and 8-sided pencils, and Hymen Lipman first attached an eraser to the end of one. Lipman later sued pencil giant Faber-Castell for infringing on his eraser patent, but the case was dismissed.
While no one has ever received lead poisoning from the graphite inside of a pencil, pencils were one of the most common causes of lead poisoning until the middle of the 20th century. The paint used on pencils was lead-based, and would seep into the fingers of the pencil’s user.
Author John Steinbeck would write with up to 60 pencils per day. He used up more than 300 pencils while writing East of Eden.
The offices of New York Stock Exchange go through over 1 million pencils each year.
Johnny Carson of The Tonight Show constantly fiddles with pencils during filming. He has pencils custom manufactured with erasers on both ends to avoid injuries on the set.
One pencil contains enough graphite to draw a line 50 km long.
So, next time you pick up a pencil, take a moment to think about the rich history of this humble tool.