The History Of The Humble Pencil
In many ways the pencil is the perfect writing instrument. It can make its mark even when used upside-down, it never leaks, and is easy to erase.
There is something wholesome about the humble pencil.
A pencil is a wonderful thing, you can use it for writing, marking, correcting, drawing, colouring, contouring, makeup and so on and on and on. It can easily be erased, but it is resistant to moisture, chemicals and aging. It is very simple to make and can come in any colour, size or shape. Although we are moving into the digital age, sales of pencils are growing and their uses are expanding. But where did this useful little tool come from? Who invented it and why?
First of all, let’s see what “pencil” actually means. The word itself came from Latin penicillus, which means “Little tail”, and was used to call a very fine brush made out of camel hair. Pencil history began back in the Romans times and pencils used to be simple metal styluses utilized for writing on wax-coated tablets. Later they were made out of lead and were used to scribble on papyrus. Even to this day we call pencil core a lead, even though it is not made out of lead anymore. But those are not the pencils we know today, as a true pencil is not made out of metal.
It was in the 1560s that a large deposit of a carboniferous mineral called graphite was discovered in England's Cumbria.
Perfect for writing on paper, a stick of graphite could be wrapped in string and the end sharpened with a knife. Easily gripped, the string would be slowly unravelled as the graphite wore down.
A hundred years later, the people of Nuremberg went one better, sandwiching the stem of graphite between two lengths of wood. Not far from the city, a cabinet maker called Kasper Faber refined the technique so that the graphite was wholly encased in a finely turned piece of wood. This led to the establishment of the Faber-Castell brand in 1761, still a major pencil-producer.
In the 1790s, graphite was in short supply thanks to Britain's wars with revolutionary France. The French chemist Nicolas-Jacques Conté came up with a way of extending meagre supplies by mixing graphite powder with clay and then baking it. Quantities could be varied to create differing levels of softness and intensity. In one of those synchronicities familiar to the creative world, Austrian Joseph Hardtmuth came up with the same technique at the same time, which evolved into the famous Koh-I-Noor brand.
This method of blending ingredients gave birth to the H, HB and B spectrum that is commonly used today. Pure Cumbrian graphite is still highly sought after and a pencil museum close to the original graphite deposit is a popular Cumbrian attraction today.
Pencils are made by placing lengths of graphite (or the graphite blend) between two pieces of grooved wood. Individual pencils can then be cut and trimmed into the familiar round or hexagonal shapes. Interestingly, the danger of lead poisoning that many associate with pencils comes from the lead in the exterior paint, absorbed into the body when a pencil end is sucked or chewed. Lead itself hasn't been used for making marks since medieval times and yet we still commonly refer to pencil lead.
There are two more events that worth mentioning related to pencils. One is invention of a pencil sharpener by Thierry des Estivaux in 1847, saving people a lot of sliced fingers. There were more sophisticated cylinder-sharpeners with their rotary handles, often used in schools and offices. Electric models naturally followed.
Sticking an eraser at the end of the pencil was introduced in the middle of the 19th century, by Hymen Lipman and was a radical enough development for the patent to be hotly disputed at the time.
Pencils used in cosmetics for eyebrows and eyeliner first appeared in 1927, inspired by the coloured-clay pencils used by artists.
With the increasing dominance of touch screen technology, one might think that the pencil as a writing instrument is doomed. Yet 14 billion pencils are made each year, requiring the timber from more than 80,000 trees.
Cedar of different varieties appears to be the most popular wood today, thankfully an easily renewable resource. One would be forgiven for thinking that the use of so many trees makes the humble pencil not quite such a wholesome implement after all.
Today pencils are everywhere, and I can guarantee that you got one on your desk. Their brilliance is in their usefulness and simplicity.