Morgan

History of the Pencil: The Right Tool for the Write Job

Arguably one of the most important innovations, and also one that many take for granted, is the pencil. According to writer Henry Petroski in his book, The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, a pencil is taken for granted because “it is abundant, inexpensive, and as familiar as speech.”1 There are millions of pencils made in the U.S. every year and most of them are the familiar number two pencils used in schools for testing. The pencil we have in our desks today is far different than the styluses that were used to write back in the times of Ancient Greece and Rome. In fact, over the past couple of centuries different aspects of the pencil have evolved separately. The first change occurred after graphite was discovered and the more dangerous mixtures of metals that were used to write with before then became obsolete. This discovery also forced people to find a way to protect the delicate graphite from breaking when using it and that is how they got the idea to wrap it up in wire or place it within a reed. The latter of the two solutions paved the way for something stronger, such as wood, to be used and it was after all of these changes occurred that the modern wooden pencil was created.

1 Petroski, Henry. The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. New York: Knopf, 1990.

The pencil was not the first writing implement, but it quickly became more popular than any other writing tool. It took many generations of different writing implements to inspire the pencils that we have today. The first writing tool was made of either bronze or bone and was used to etch carvings onto a clay tablet. That was around 4000 B.C.2 In the centuries that followed, objects such as reed pens and metal or bone styluses were used for writing.3 When people used a stylus to write something down, they would basically just be using a metal rod to scratch words into wood or papyrus. The metals used to make this stylus changed over time, but the principle behind how it worked remained constant.4 It was not until later when the Greeks utilized a small, fine-tipped brush called a penicillum that the inspiration for the pencil was born.5 It is important to remember that every time new literacy technology begins, it is only available to a certain part of the population.6 Normally, this new technology gets used by the upper or priestly classes first and is later adapted for use by everyone else. It was from these humble beginnings that the idea for the pencil was born.

“Writing Instruments Over 6000 Years.” History of Writing Instruments. Accessed November 9, 2016. http://www.ringpen.com/history.html.

Ibid.

“A Visual History of the Pencil.” Museum of Everyday Life. Accessed November 10, 2016. http://museumofeverydaylife.org/exhibitions-collections/current-exhibitions/visual-history-of-the-pencil.

Ibid.

Baron, Dennis. “From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technology.” July 12, 2014. Accessed November 10, 2016. http://dtext.org/f14/505/readings/baron-Pencils-to-Pixels.pdf

Graphite was not used in pencils until it was discovered in the early 1560s in a small town in England called Borrowdale. Legend has it that during a stormy night, a tree fell over and a few villagers noticed black chunks clinging to the tree’s roots.

Once they figured out this substance left a dark, yet erasable mark, they used it to mark their sheep.7 Later on though, this substance, which was known at the time by names such as Wadd, white lead, black lead, bismuth and plumbago, began being used for writing.8 The reason people referred to it as plumbago was because this word was Latin for “that which acts like lead” and that is what they believed they had found.9 Once the chemical composition of this mysterious substance was identified in 1779 by K. W. Steele, its name was changed to graphite. This inspiration for calling the dark substance graphite was due to the Greek word graphein, meaning “to write.”10 People in the fields who needed to make quick notes about things turned to graphite to help them out. However, they needed something a bit more refined than just a chunk of graphite. As Petroski points out, “the relative bulkiness of a lump would hide from the view of the writer or drawer the very thing being written or drawn…”11 Instead, they sawed the graphite into small sticks to make more precise markings. Now these writers were able to take better notes, make sketches and create overall clearer lines on their papers. Now the problem of precision had been solved, but another issue quickly followed. These writers and artists quickly discovered that while writing, their hands would get filthy and the graphite broke apart easily. That is when they got the idea to contain the graphite in another object, like a reed, sheepskin or coiled string.12 These chunks of graphite were used to write with until 1795 when a French chemist named Nicholas Jacques Conté received a patent for the modern process of making pencil leads.13 With this modern process, the person would first mix the powdered graphite and clay, form sticks and then stick them in a furnace to harden.14 This new method of making pencil lead resulted after the idea of using wood for the actual pencil part came about.

Johnny. “Evolution of the Pencil.” Pencil Revolution. May 27, 2014. Accessed November 10, 2016. http://www.pencilrevolution.com/2014/05/evolution-of-the-pencil/.

IBID.

IBID.

10 IBID.

11 IBID.

12 IBID.

13 “History of the Lead Pencil.” Early Office Museum. Accessed November 9, 2016. http://www.officemuseum.com/pencil_history.HTM

14 IBID.

The earliest wooden pencils were pretty similar to the ones that we use today, just more primitive. In 1662, pencils were produced in Nuremberg and were constructed by gluing sticks of graphite into cases assembled from two pieces of wood.15 The first known description of a wooden pencil actually came from a book on fossils written by Konrad Gesner in 1565. He wrote, “The stylus shown below is made for writing, from a sort of lead (which I have heard the English call antimony), shaved to a point and inserted into a wooden handle.”16 These pencils, instead of being rounded, were squared off because that shape could be easily and reliably cut.17 It is also important to note that the last few inches of the pencil were left empty because odds are that once the pencil got to be that short in length, the writer would just get a new one.18 Pictured below is a photograph of what a pencil from this time period would actually look like. This photograph is of the oldest known pencil, which was found inside a German house and dates back to the 17th century.

As the years went by, techniques for making the wooden cases changed and improved. The engineer Henry Petroski believed that the creation of the wooden pencil was a paradigm of the engineering processes.19 He said that this invention hinged on the solution of two problems: finding the right combination of graphite and clay so it is not too soft or too brittle and getting the lead into the pencil in such a way that it would not break when sharpened or when pressure was placed upon it during the writing process.20

15 Ibid.

16 IBID.

17 IBID.

18 IBID.

19 IBID.

20 IBID.

The first wooden-cased pencils made in America did not arise until 1812.21 It is important to remember that crafting these wooden pencils was an art form and that is why when they first came out in the U.S., they were not painted. However, in the 1890s, these pencils started to be painted yellow to express the fact that they contained Chinese graphite.22 During this time period, the best graphite in the world came from China and it was also in China that the color yellow was seen as regal.23 Later on, a man named Charles William Cutter got the idea for a machine that would be able to print words onto pencils for advertising purposes.24 On December 25, 1900, his patent for a machine to print words on pencils was granted and since then, we have been able to place letters and numbers on pencils that can dictate such things as what company made them and the toughness of the lead.25

21 “PENCIL HISTORY.” PENCILS.COM. ACCESSED NOVEMBER 9, 2016. HTTPS://PENCILS.COM/PENCIL-HISTORY/.

22 “The Yellow Pencil.” Pencils.com. Accessed November 9, 2016. https://pencils.com/why-are-pencils-yellow/.

23 Ibid.

24 Cutter, Charles William. Pencil-printing Machine. US Patent US664726 A, filed March 30, 1900, and issued December 25, 1900.

25 IBID.

And so, it was through these humble beginnings that the modern pencil was born. From the adaptation of the stylus, to the replacement of lead by graphite, to the utilization of wood to encase the graphite, the pencil is truly a marvel. It has come a long way from marking sheep in England to being used for test-taking in schools. The change from being handmade by a cabinet maker in Massachusetts to being mass produced by machines that can crank out thousands per day is awe-inspiring. It can be argued that the pencil is still evolving even today with the advent of the mechanical pencil. No matter how much the pencil has changed or will continue to change, one thing is clear. This innovation was something that changed the world for the better and will continue to do so until writing becomes obsolete.

Bibliography

“A Visual History of the Pencil.” Museum of Everyday Life. Accessed November 10, 2016. http://museumofeverydaylife.org/exhibitions-collections/current-exhibitions/visual-history-of-the-pencil.

Baron, Dennis. “From Pencils to Pixels: The Stages of Literacy Technology.” July 12, 2014. Accessed November 10, 2016. http://dtext.org/f14/505/readings/baron-Pencils-to-Pixels.pdf

Cutter, Charles William. Pencil-printing Machine. US Patent US664726 A, filed March 30, 1900, and issued December 25, 1900.

Discovery of Graphite. The Museum of Everyday Life. December 2, 2016. http://museumofeverydaylife.org/wp-content/uploads/discovery-of-graphite.jpg

“History of the Lead Pencil.” Early Office Museum. Accessed November 9, 2016. http://www.officemuseum.com/pencil_history.htm.  

Johnny. “Evolution of the Pencil.” Pencil Revolution. May 27, 2014. Accessed November 10, 2016. http://www.pencilrevolution.com/2014/05/evolution-of-the-pencil/.

“Pencil History.” Pencils.com. Accessed November 9, 2016. https://pencils.com/pencil-history/.

Petroski, Henry. The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. New York: Knopf, 1990.

Suppa, Sandra. Oldest Known Pencil in Existence. September 2000. Faber-Castell collection. December 1, 2016. http://www.pencilpages.com/gallery/oldest.htm

“The Yellow Pencil.” Pencils.com. Accessed November 9, 2016. https://pencils.com/why-are-pencils-yellow/.

“Writing Instruments Over 6000 Years.” History of Writing Instruments. Accessed November 9, 2016. http://www.ringpen.com/history.html.