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.
The history of the modern pencil began somewhere around 1550, when a large deposit of graphite was discovered in England. It did not take long for people to figure out its usefulness, and thought at first it was mainly used for marking sheep and other barn animals, it quickly transformed into a tool for writing and drawing. Pencil’s fame grew, and soon it spread all over Europe, and every respectable lady or gentleman had to have one.
For a long time a pencil was constructed out of a solid graphite lead and wrapped in a piece of leather or a string. This was not the most comfortable form of a pencil, as it would leave black marks not only on a paper but also on user’s hands, and probably trousers and skirts. Around 1560, not long after the discovery of graphite, an Italian couple Simonio and Lyndiana Bernacotti contrived a form of a wood-encased pencil called carpentry pencil, but its shape was oval and quite unwieldy. Soon after the modern form of a pencil was invented, two wooden halves with a lead in the middle glued together, and from that point on the pencils construction method stayed pretty much the same. In 1662, Nuremberg, Germany, first mass production of pencils was set up by Kasper Faber. His company, Faber-Castell, still makes and sells pencils to this day.
Although by the end of 16th century we figured out how to construct a modern pencil, its lead was still just a simple stick of graphite, and all of it had to come from a single mine in England. Now that was not very convenient for many people on the mainland or outside of Europe. In 1790s, during one of the many wars between Britain and France, graphite imports to the French side were stopped. Napoleon loved his pencils and wanted more of them, and so one of his generals, Nicolas-Jacques Conté, discovered a way to mix powdered graphite, which was much easier to source, with clay, heating them up and producing a good quality pencil lead. Add different quantities of graphite and clay, and you will create leads with different levels of softness and intensity. In 1802, this technique was patented by the Koh-I-Noor company, owned by Austrian Joseph Hardtmuth. Form that day onwards not much has changed about the true form of a pencil, the one we all know and love. There were changes in wood and shape, its size and classifications of its characteristics, but overall a pencil is simply too perfect to change.
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. And two is the patent by Hymen Lipman for attaching an eraser to the end of a pencil, putting it all into one nice package.
Today pencils are everywhere, and I can guarantee that you got one on your desk. Their brilliance is in their usefulness and simplicity. For more information on pencils and their history check out these sites: