Skip to main content

History of the Pencil

What medieval smuggling has to do with the atomic structure of carbon.

The oldest pencil in the world, found in timbered house built in 1630. (Image: Faber-Castell)

Having previously explored such mysteries as who invented writing and how sounds became shapes, it's time to turn to something much less mysterious, a seemingly mundane yet enormously influential tool of human communication: the humble pencil.

"Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak," states the first of Margaret Atwood's 10 rules of writing. "But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils." 

But even though the pencil has fueled such diverse feats of creative culture as celebrated artists' sketchbooks, Marilyn Monroe's soulful unpublished poems, Lisa Congdon's stunning portraits, and David Byrne's diagrams of the human condition, it has only been around for a little over two hundred years. 

In the altogether fascinating 100 Essential Things You Didn't Know You Didn't Know: Math Explains Your World (public library), John D. Barrow tells the story of this underrated technological marvel:

The modern pencil was invented in 1795 by Nicholas-Jacques Conte, a scientist serving in the army of Napoleon Bonaparte. The magic material that was so appropriate for the purpose was the form of pure carbon that we call graphite. It was first discovered in Europe, in Bavaria at the start of the fifteenth century; although the Aztecs had used it as a marker several hundred years earlier. Initially it was believed to be a form of lead and was called 'plumbago' or black lead (hence the 'plumbers' who mend our lead water-carrying pipes), a misnomer that still echoes in our talk of pencil 'leads'. It was called graphite only in 1789, using the Greek word 'graphein' meaning 'to write'. Pencil is an older word, derived from the Latin 'pencillus', meaning 'little tail', to describe the small ink brushes used for writing in the Middle Ages.

But the history of the pencil, like that of many seminal innovations, has a dark side:

The purest deposits of lump graphite were found in Borrowdale near Keswick [England] in the Lake District in 1564 and spawned quite a smuggling industry and associated black economy in the area. During the nineteenth century a major pencil manufacturing industry developed around Keswick in order to exploit the high quality of the graphite.

And yet the pencil industry blossomed:

The first factory opened in 1832, and the Cumberland Pencil Company has just celebrated its 175th anniversary; although the local mines have long been closed and supplies of the graphite used now come from Sri Lanka and other far away places. Cumberland pencils were those of the highest quality because the graphite used shed no dust and marked the paper very well.

Plain as it appears, however, the pencil has evolved significantly since its invention:

Conte's original process for manufacturing pencils involved roasting a mixture of water, clay and graphite in a kiln at 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit before encasing the resulting soft solid in a wooden surround. The shape of that surround can be square, polygonal or round, depending on the pencil's intended use – carpenters don't want round pencils that are going to roll off the workbench. The hardness or softness of the final pencil 'lead' can be determined by adjusting the relative fractions of clay and graphite in the roasting mixture. Commercial pencil manufacturers typically market 20 grades of pencil, from the softest, 9B, to the hardest 9H, with the most popular intermediate value, HB, lying midway between H and B. 'H' means hard and 'B' means black. The higher the B number, the more graphite gets left on the paper. There is also an 'F', or Fine point, which is a hard pencil for writing rather than drawing.
Barrow offers the science behind an oft-cited trivia factlet:

The strange thing about graphite is that it is a form of pure carbon that is one of the softest solids known, and one of the best lubricants because the six carbon atoms that link to form a ring can slide easily over adjacent rings. Yet, if the atomic structure is changed, there is another crystalline form of pure carbon, diamond, that is one of the hardest solids known.

For the mathematically-minded, Barrow offers a delightful curiosity-quencher:

An interesting question is to ask how long a straight line could be drawn with a typical HB pencil before the lead was exhausted. The thickness of graphite left on a sheet of paper by a soft 2B pencil is about 20 nanometers and a carbon atom has a diameter of 0.14 nanometers, so the pencil line is only about 143 atoms thick. The pencil lead is about 1 mm in radius and therefore ? square mm in area. If the length of the pencil is 15 cm, then the volume of graphite to be spread out on a straight line is 150? cubic mm. If we draw a line of thickness 20 nanometers and width 2 mm, then there will be enough lead to continue for a distance L = 150? / 4 X 10-7 mm = 1,178 kilometers.

Popular posts from this blog

Beware of Wombats & Other Vampires

You are surrounded by dangerous WOMBATS. They’re everywhere. Sometimes they hide in plain sight, easy to spot. Other times they are well camouflaged, requiring heightened awareness to identify them. You need to stay alert, it’s important to avoid them. WOMBATs resemble ordinary, productive tasks. However, they are vampires for time and resources, weapons of mass distraction.WOMBATs are seductive. Working on a WOMBAT feels productive.WOMBATs are bad for your career.WOMBATs are bad for your business.WOMBATs infiltrate your work day (and your personal time). Strike them down.WOMBATs may be be ingrained in your company culture: “We’ve always done it that way…” WOMBAT Metamorphosis Alert: A task or project that wasproductive in the pastcanevolve into a WOMBAT in today's environment.Your comfort zone is populated with WOMBATs.More on comfort zones, here.Some people are WOMBATs in disguise. Stay away from them, they are vampire WOMBATs.If you don’t control your WOMBATs, your WOMBATs will…

Taking Tips From a Younger Generation

Phyllis Korkki, an assignment editor at The New York Times, visited the garment district in Manhattan to interview designers as part of a story for the newspaper’s Snapchat account. Credit George Etheredge/The New York Times
What Could I Possibly Learn From A Mentor Half My Age? Plenty.

How on earth did I become an “older worker?”

It was only a few years ago, it seems, that I set out to climb the ladder in my chosen field. That field happens to be journalism, but it shares many attributes with countless other workplaces. For instance, back when I was one of the youngest people in the room, I was helped by experienced elders who taught me the ropes.

Now, shockingly, I’m one of the elders. And I’ve watched my industry undergo significant change. That’s why I recently went searching for a young mentor — yes, a younger colleague to mentor me.

How Randa and the Fashion Industry are Adapting to DIY

The term 'Do It Yourself' has turned into a phenomenon over the past decade and is continuing to gain momentum, especially in the fashion industry. From interactive design stations at Topshop, to custom shoes at Jimmy Choo, every level of the fashion industry is dipping their toes into the pools of DIY.

"Many industry insiders think it is just the beginning. Ask about the future of fashion, and the answer that is likely to come back (along with the importance of Instagram and the transformation of shows into entertainment) is personalization," says Vanessa Friedman from the New York Times.