The humble pencil that you had picked up to scribble on the walls as a tiny toddler, to write your first alphabets, and to sketch your favourite pictures. Have you ever given a thought as to where it first came from? Or whether, even a pencil can have a long and quite interesting history behind it? Surely, who thinks of all that when they just pick up a pencil to write! But, give it a thought and start digging about it and the curious case of the pencil and its invention will shock you for sure.
Thankfully, you don’t need to do much digging about the matter because all that information and facts have been compiled for you right here. So, read on to find out!
The invention of the earliest form of pencil
The modern pencil owes its existence to the ancient Roman writing instrument known as stylus. Though the idea came from there, but the invention of it cannot be credited to the Romans. The earliest form of pencil was invented in the year 1564 when an expansive graphite mine was discovered in the Borrowdale region of Cumbria, England.
Pure graphite derived from the mine was made into sheets and cut into square rods. Then, these square rods were inserted inside handmade wooden holders to form, what you can call the first version of a pencil.
The use of graphite as a writing instrument was discovered first at the beginning of the 15thcentury, though the Aztecs had used that for making markers hundreds of years before that. Interestingly, the material that was initially used for pencils was thought of as a kind of lead and was named black lead or ‘plumbago’ (now you also know why you call those who mend the lead pipes as ‘plumbers’). This misnomer still exists when you talk about ‘leads’ of pencils.
Back in those times, the English enjoyed a monopoly on the pencil production because no other mines of pure graphite were discovered, and other nations were yet to find ways to make graphite sticks.
The Germans tried to manufacture graphite sticks for pencils using powdered graphite, but those turned out to be highly impractical. This predicament faced by the Germans was ultimately solved when a way to make use of powdered graphite was finally found.
How the modern pencil came into existence?
The form that you see of pencil today is thanks to Nicholas-Jacques Conte, who was a French army officer serving under Napoleon Bonaparte. He invented the pencil in 1795, using one of the new and improved methods of manufacturing it.
He kiln fired powered graphite and clay to make those graphite sticks for the pencils. He found out that the hardness of graphite could be altered and made just right by varying the ratio of clay to graphite, and thus, the modern pencil was born.
The word graphite is derived from ‘graphein’ which in Greek means ‘to write’. It came to known as graphite in 1789, when A.G. Werner chemically analysed it. The word pencil, however, comes from a much older word. It is derived from ‘pencillus’ which is the Latin for ‘little tail.’ It refers to those small ink brushes that were used for writing during the middle ages.
The pencil reaches out to the world
Before the mid-1500s, the pencil was something that mostly the artists used. But, that changed in the 18thand 19thcentury. Faber-Castell was established in 1761, followed by other companies like Steadtler, Lyra, and more during the industrial revolution, and an active pencil industry started in the 19thcentury.
The early settlers in America depended on the pencils that came from overseas, but the imports were cut off as the war with England began. Thereafter, a cabinet-maker from Concord, Massachusetts, William Monroe, is credited with making the first ever wood pencils of America in 1812. Henry David Thoreau, the famous author from Concord, was also known to have exceptional prowess in making pencils.
The pencil companies of America took off when the renowned Joseph Dixon Crucible Company and several other pencil makers started taking it all seriously. During the end of 19thcentury, New Jersey and New York had several factories laid by German pencil makers, like Eagle Pencil Company, Eberhard Faber, and the General Pencil Company.
Initially, the pencils that were mass-produced were unpainted and natural to showcase the high-end wood casings. During the end of 1890s, this started changing as many of the manufacturers began painting the pencils and imprinting the brand names on it.
The history of the wood for the pencils
During the initial years of mass production, Eastern Red Cedar was used to make the pencils. It was a resilient wood that grew in parts of the South eastern United States of America and Tennessee. To be near the source of the wood, the manufacturers started migrating south and eventually, the largest number of pencil manufacturers were concentrated in Tennessee. Interestingly, even to this day Tennessee has the highest number of pencil manufacturers in the USA.
As the years progressed, these sources of wood were not being enough any longer. In search for more and better quality of wood, the pencil manufacturers turned towards the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. Here, they found incense cedar, which helped to make superior quality of pencils. Soon this incense cedar from California became the material of choice for pencil manufacturers all over the world.
To ensure the continuous supply of the wood, forest workers started careful management of the trees and timber companies started the sustained yield policy. According to the policy, the amount harvested from the forest has to be lower than its annual growth.
Phew! Who would have thought that pencil has had such a long and eventful journey, right? So, the next time you pick up the pencil to scribble, give all these facts a thought. After all, you are holding a fine piece of invention that travelled centuries to be where it is today!