Blog Archives

Swiftocracy!: The History of Pencils (Involving High Tech Weaponry, Endangered Trees, and Chinese Emperors)


For the next two weeks each of my posts will be based off requests. For more information about how that happened, look here.

“The history of some completely mundane thing we use everyday.”

Let’s talk about pencils.

You know how they call the graphite inside of pencils “lead,” even though they’re made of graphite? When I was a boy  I was told that they used to use lead as the filling, but now a’ days we’re smarter and use graphite because it isn’t deadly poisonous.  That explanation turned out to be simultaneously completely false yet essentially true, all while muddling up the surprisingly fascinating history of the common pencil. To sort this out, let’s start from the beginning.

The word “pencil” is based off some kind of latin word that basically means paintbrush (look it up if you’re that into dead languages, I thought I’d boil down to the essentials on this one). However the precursor to the pencil is not a paintbrush at all but a tool known as the stylus that was popular in Roman times. The stylus was nothing more than a vaguely pencil shaped piece of metal. This piece of metal was used to put marks into tablets of wax or to scratch very light and hard to see words onto papyrus. Honestly the words written in wax were probably hard to see too, but if you wanted something permanent or lasting you wouldn’t be using a stylus. A stylus was for temporary jobs where quality wasn’t important, like jotting down a quick inventory of your goods, or doing some math. At some point the Romans, who loved using lead for just about anything, made lead styluses which had the added bonus of rubbing off on the material a little bit leaving a faint black mark. This is as close as we’ll get to an actual lead pencil.

People made do with styluses until somewhere between 1500 and 1560 when a fantastic discovery was made. And by “discovery” I mean “somebody with big ideas found something that the locals have known about for years and never thought was really that interesting.” In the small village of Seathwaite in England shepherds had taken to marking their sheep with some odd grey rocks they kept finding in the hills nearby. The rocks were made of graphite, and Seathwaite was (and remains to this very day) the only place on planet earth where deposits of pure graphite could be found. Seathwaite was sitting on an inexplicably pure and humongous deposit of a substance that nobody even knew existed until the 1500s. When it was properly discovered chemists at the time believed that it must be some strange variety of lead. Soon it was commonly known as “black lead,” which is why we call the graphite in our pencils “lead” to this day.

After its “discovery” people started properly mining it and sawing off big hunks of it to use as styluses. Graphite was vastly superior to lead as a simple marking tool, and far handier than ink for the writer or artist on the go. However graphite is really brittle and breaks easily (as anyone with a mechanical pencil can tell you) so it required some kind of covering to keep it together. The earliest pencils were square rods of graphite that were sawn off a big block and wrapped in string or sheepskin. Eventually somebody figured out that wood was a lot more convenient, and the modern pencil was born.

Artists, writers, and businesspeople everywhere rejoiced at the discovery of graphite and the invention of the pencil. However not long after the graphite mines were dug the English government took them over and strictly limited their output. You see graphite has properties besides being an excellent marking material. Metalworkers found that cannonball molds that were lined with graphite produced incredibly smooth cannonballs. Incredibly smooth cannonballs fire much farther and more accurately than those that are produced without the graphite lining. Britain was establishing itself as a major naval power at this time and they’d just been handed exclusive access to the material necessary for creating the most high-tech cannonballs in the world. They soon put the entire mine under guard. They were so security conscious, and so determined to prevent their enemies from getting pure graphite, that they would mine out as much as they would need for the next few years and then flood the entire mine. When they ran out they would pump out the water, mine some more, and then flood it again.

Enough graphite was released (or smuggled out) to support a small pencil industry. They were so popular that a method was devised to create solid graphite out of a mixture of graphite dust and various chemicals. Impure graphite deposits were found in Germany, and the Germans began selling to the rest of Europe (though their pencils were of far lower quality than the solid British versions). During the Napoleonic wars France found its pencil supplies cut off from both Britain and Germany, and devised a way to make graphite out of graphite powder and clay. Almost all graphite today is made using a similar method, as Seathwaite remains the only location where natural pure graphite can be found and the mines were played out there years ago.

Somewhere in all this pencils went from being square to round. British pencils were recognizable by still having a square core (since they were all sawed off of blocks of graphite) while other pencils had the round core that we’re used to today.

In the 1800’s American’s started making their own pencils so they wouldn’t have to import them. Making pencils was a slow process, and an American by the name of Ebenezer Wood sought to automate it. He came up with a lot of good ideas, but the one that has lasted the longest is the hexagon shaped pencils we’re most used to today. Hexagons could be cut out of wood with far less waste than circles, and the practice stuck.

Another pencil innovation from America was the discovery that Eastern Red Cedar was fantastic for making pencil casings. The wood doesn’t splinter easily, is durable, and smells nice. Soon Eastern Red Cedar was being exported to pencil manufacturers around the world. By the turn of the century Eastern Red Cedar was in such high demand and short supply that people began tearing apart old cedar barns to turn the wood into pencils. It got so bad that during WWII the British government outlawed pencil sharpeners because they wasted too much valuable wood and graphite. All pencil sharpening had to be done the economical way, with a knife. Eventually it was discovered that the Incense Cedar, a tree native to the mountains of California, worked just as well. Today most pencils are made with Incense Cedar wood, unless they’re the really cheap kind.

In 1858 somebody got the bright idea to attach an eraser to the back of a pencil. (INCIDENTALLY, erasers have an interesting history too. People used to use sandstone and pumice to erase pencil marks until it was discovered that breadcrumbs erased marks well. Then in 1770 Edward Naime claimed that he accidentally picked up a piece of rubber when he was reaching for a piece of bread and found it to be a superior eraser (this may or may not be true, as he did make his living as the one of the first eraser salesmen). Before this point nobody really had too much use for rubber; in fact, rubber got its name because of its ability to “rub out” pencil marks. Neat.)

It was around that same time that a huge deposit of high quality graphite was discovered in northern China and Siberia. By this time the Seathwaite deposit was almost used up, so “Chinese lead” was soon known to make the best pencils around. In the 1890s an Austrian company started painting its high quality pencils yellow to signify their luxury status and to make people think about China. Up until this point most pencils were unpainted, to show off the wood. Yellow was associated with royalty in China, in part because of the fabled “Yellow Emperor ” Huang Ti who in ancient times supposedly invented the bow and arrow, wooden carts, and writing. So yellow reminded Chinese of the Yellow Emperor and writing, which reminded of the western world of China, which made them think of all that high quality Chinese graphite. Competing pencil manufacturers released their own yellow painted luxury pencils. Soon everyone was painting their pencils yellow regardless of whether they had any Chinese graphite within them. Today a yellow pencil is as common as dirt, and usually signifies cheapness and mass production. Presumably if they had called Huang Ti the “Red Emperor” thousands of years ago we’d be up to our armpits in red pencils instead. History is funny like that.

So there you have it. From the Roman stylus to the modern Ticonderoga the pencil has a long and inexplicably interesting history. Where would the world be without it today?

Probably using pens, now that I think about it.