Pencils - Not Just Kids' Play

Do you know the history of pencils ? Read the article to get some historical facts about pencils, Sharpeners and erasers.



The Ancient and Modern Pencils

The ancient 'stylus' (left) and the modern day pencil

The world's first raw pencil was probably the 'stylus' used by ancient Egyptians and Romans to scratch markings on Papyrus sheets. This device was made of a thin stick of lead. As society evolved, so did the humble pencil. The word pencil comes from the Latin 'Pencillus' or 'little tail'.

Graphite was first discovered in the Seathwaite Valley in England in about 1564. Some of the earliest pencils in the modern world were made here shortly after this discovery. The discovered material was found to be useful for marking sheep and could be easily sawed into convenient sticks. The graphite was initially thought to be lead, and was referred to as 'Plumbago' or 'lead ore' in Latin. In fact, though we refer to the pencils as lead today, they don't really contain the element lead.

The real breakthrough in the pencil industry came much later in 1795, through the efforts of the French chemist Nicolas Conte. He combined clay and graphite which were glued into a cylindrical wooden slot that was closed up with wood. This method of firing the powdered mixture in a kiln before packing into the 'pencil' made it possible for the pencil points to be soft or hard and served people of different professions well.

Eberhard Faber built the world's first pencil factory in New York, U.S.A. in 1861. Graphite pencils are of great use to artists and other craftsmen, because they tend to be more resistant to water, most chemical agents and UV radiation. Charcoal pencils leave a much darker imprint on the paper and are employed by sketching artists. Coloured pencils and wax crayons are used more for creative colouring, and the markings of some may smear on the paper instead of getting erased. Grease pencils utilize a crayon-like tip that results in much smoother markings that are good for porcelain and glass. Mechanical pencils appear like pens, and consist of a movable narrow lead core that can be manipulated through the pressing of the button on top of the device. The first specimen of a mechanical pencil (also called pen pencils or clutch pencils) was found on the HMS Pandora which sank in 1791. Currently, pencil casings come in a variety of other materials including hard plastic and even a softer flexible material that can be bent any way desired.

Pen Pencil

Mechanical pencils


Our modern day pencil sharpeners, in all their colours and designs, started out as a simple penknife. In 1847, Therry des Etwaux invented the first sharpener we have come to recognize. In November of 1897, John Lee Love invented a portable sharpener, in which the pencil tip is inserted into an open end and after rotating the sharpener, the shavings remain inside it.

Sharpeners then and now

John Love's pencil sharpener patent (left) and our wide variety of sharpeners today



Charles Marie de la Condamine brought a substance called 'India rubber' to the Institute de France in Paris in 1736. The rubber was being used by the South American Indian tribes to make bouncing balls for play and to glue feathers and other items to their bodies. Edward Naime was the first person to use a cube of this material to erase pencil markings – accidentally! He meant to use breadcrumbs, which was the method of erasing at the time. Soon, other people in Europe started to do the same. But the problem with these small cubes was that they were perishable. In 1839, Charles Goodyear used a process he called Vulcanization (after the Roman God of fire – Vulcan) to cure this perishable rubber and make it more long-lasting. Hence the dawn of our common eraser!

In March 1858, a man called Hymen Lipman of Philadelphia received a patent for attaching a small eraser to a pencil's end. However, the patent was considered invalid, as there was no real invention on his part – just the combination of two already existing items. Today, the eraser is held together to the pencil with the aid of a tiny metal band called a 'ferrule'.


Author: Arti Singh27 Feb 2015 Member Level: Gold   Points : 3

Hi Chantella,

Wondeful article written on pencils giving such details about history and the science behind it. It is one of the most important stationery item and is availabe in almost every house, but who thinks so much in detail?

Today, pencils are available in markets in various bright colors, size, shapes and brands. They are used for writing, sketching and drawing.

I go crazy looking at the varieties and colors available in pencils in a stationery shop. They are cheap, tough and brawny. Pencils serve as a wonderful return gift on my kids birthday parties and a sometimes even useful as a hair pin:-)

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