When a passer-by spotted a black substance clinging to the roots of an oak tree upturned in a storm in Borrowdale, England in 1565, he couldn’t have imagined that he’d just stumbled upon something that would change the world.
Actually, his first thought was that
this hard, black substance would be
perfect for marking his sheep. But it
wasn’t long before the graphite he’d
found was being cut into rods and
wrapped in string that could be unwound.
Later, the rods were inserted
into wooden cases and the pencil
was written into existence.
The practicality, utility and portability
of the pencil is something we
take for granted, but at one time it
was considered as revolutionary as
the personal computer. It made writing
convenient, and in one stroke
replaced a range of cumbersome
tools including charred sticks, metal
wires, wax-covered stone tablets and
The graphite in the Borrowdale
deposit was of an extremely high
quality, and by the early 1600s, England’s
"black lead" was being widely
So lucrative was the trade that
when sufficient reserves had been
extracted, mines were often flooded
to keep scavengers out.
But this rich vein of graphite
eventually began to wear out.
France, which in the late 1700s was
fighting several European countries,
including Britain, in what were
known as the French Revolutionary
Wars, suffered a particular shortage
of pencils due to an economic blockade
To solve this problem, Frenchman
Nicolas-Jacques Conté invented
a way to use lower-quality graphite
from other mines, grind it to a fine
powder, combine it with clay and
then bake it to produce pencil lead.
Increasing the clay content gave
a harder and lighter pencil, while
increasing the graphite made a softer
and darker pencil. This set the stage
for the different grades of pencils we
The Conté Method was guarded
like a prized family recipe, so wouldbe
copycats had to derive their own
formulas. Those looking to get rich
quick, like "bunglers" (anyone who
was working outside of one of the allimportant
labour guilds) in Germany
resorted to selling pencils with only
an inch or two of graphite, or even
fake blackened wood sticks that only
looked like pencils.
Demand pushed innovation and
soon the German Lothar von Faber
mastered the Conté process and
began creating quality pencils that
would cement the name of Faber-
Castell – as the company is now
known – as one of the world’s greatest
Meanwhile, as the 18th century
waned in the United States, a schoolgirl
from Massachusetts whose
name is lost to history had been
given some Borrowdale graphite. She
pounded it to a powder, combined it with glue and encased it in an elder
branch, making the New World’s first
pencil. Author Henry David Thoreau,
himself the son of a pencil-maker, in
the mid-1830s improved upon her invention
by deducing what Conté had
arrived at through chemical analysis;
Thoreau combined poor-quality
American graphite with clay to make
some of the finest pencils available
in the young country.
By the late 1800s, approximately
240,000 pencils were being consumed
daily in America alone. And
an enterprising Hyman Lipman
attached a rubber eraser to a pencil
in 1858 and patented it. Prior to that,
bread was used to remove graphite
marks. Slowly but steadily, the
pencil-making processes began to be
automated and this mass production
began to take a toll on the trees.
The preferred wood for pencils
had been red cedar for its pleasant
odour and non-splintering quality
when sharpened. As the supply
dwindled in the early 1900s,
pencil-makers began to recycle the
wood from old cedar barns and
fences. Pencil sharpeners were even
declared illegal in Britain because of
the amount of wood being wasted.
This dwindling supply of suitable
wood sparked a renewed interest
in the mechanical, or "propelling"
pencil. American Charles Keeran improved on previous designs and,
in partnership with the Wahl Adding
Machine Company, his "Eversharp"
pencil was launched in 1915 to great
Still, the public wanted something
simple and wooden to write
with. It was discovered that incensecedar,
found in abundance in
California and Oregon, was capable
of making a good pencil – after the
wood was dyed and perfumed to
resemble red cedar. Incense cedar is
still the wood of choice for making
pencils today, and the trees are now
harvested in a sustainable way to
ensure a constant supply of wood.
Pencil-making is truly a multinational
industry with annual sales
topping 14 billion units – enough to
put two pencils in the breast pocket
of every person on earth. The pencil
you buy might be made from material
sourced from all over the world;
US clay and wood, graphite from
South America and the material for
making the eraser from Europe.
Best of all, a pencil won’t leak
on a long plane ride, can write in
extreme heat and cold, and can draw
a continuous line 56 kilometres long.
It can also write its history directly
back over 450 years to an English
hillside and a fallen oak.
How a Pencil is Made
It takes three stages to make a
pencil, all of which are automated
today. They are graphite processing,
wood processing and pencil building.
Chunks of mined graphite are
ground into a powder and
processed to remove impurities.
The graphite powder is combined
with purified clay and water and the
resultant paste is extruded through
tiny holes to make spaghetti-like
strands of "lead." After drying, the
leads are baked in ovens at 900 degrees
Celsius for one hour and then
soaked in an oil or wax bath to add
smoothness. For coloured pencils
the clay is combined with pigments
instead of graphite.
"Pencil squares" are formed
from felled trees, then seasoned
for several months until
completely dry. The squares are then
cut into slats that are treated with
wax and stain to create uniformity,
and several parallel semi-circular
grooves are cut into one side of each
slat, then filled with an adhesive.
The lead strands are laid into
the grooves and covered by
the complementary slat. This pencil
"sandwich" is then pressed and heat
is applied. Once dry, the sandwiches
are sliced, forming individual pencils.
The pencils are then coated in paint
and lacquer. An eraser can be attached
by a metal collar or "ferrule."
Famous Pencil Pushers
Thomas Edison The inventor
had his pencils specially made by
Eagle Pencil to be three inches
long (6.6 centimetres), fatter
than ordinary pencils and filled
with very soft lead.
Vladimir Nabokov The Russian
writer famously stated: "I
have rewritten – often several
times – every word I have ever
published. My pencils outlast
John Steinbeck The author
wrote obsessively in pencil,
sometimes going through 60 in
one day. It is said that he used
300 pencils to complete his
novel, East of Eden.
Vincent van Gogh The Dutch
artist is reported to have preferred
a Faber-Castell pencil for
his large studies. He claimed,
"they are of ideal thickness; very
soft and in quality superior to carpenter’s
pencils, a capital black
and most agreeable …"
Why we think
Back in ancient Rome, scribes
used sticks of lead (the metal) for
writing with – but it was far from
perfect as the marks it made
were faint and it could damage
parchment, the predominant
leather-derived writing material.
Nothing replaced it for centuries,
and some people were still using
lead sticks in England up to the
1500s, in place of quill and ink.
So when the new writing material
was discovered in Borrowdale, it
was called "black lead" – which
led to the business part of a
pencil being called "lead."
Pencil graphite is
composed of the
same substance as
diamonds – carbon. In
graphite, the atoms
are arranged in sheet-like layers,
with weak attraction between the
sheets. Because these layers are
not tightly bonded, the graphite
is easily manipulated, which
allows the graphite in a pencil
to roll onto paper easily. Carbon
atoms in diamonds, in contrast,
are arranged in very strong
three-dimensional bonds, making
diamonds the hardest substance
on earth. And thanks to its atomic
structure, a pencil line drawn on a
piece of paper can conduct electricity
which a diamond can’t.
The Point of it All - History of the Pencil
It can write under water, in outer space and on almost any surface. It’s been used to solve complex equations, create striking works of art and has been sucked on by schoolkids in a million exams. And it’s the weapon of choice for crossword warriors the world over. But let’s get to the point …
By Michael Franco