The Invention of the Pencil



            Most people take for granted the writing tool known as a pencil and many are thrown away before they are even halfway used.  The advent of the writing tool began in ancient Rome were philosophers and scribes used a stylus made from lead strips to make light impressions on papyrus sheets.  It wasn’t until 1564 that a large deposit of graphite was found in Borrowdale, England.  This new material was great for making marks, though it tended to be somewhat brittle.  The English devised a carrying shaft out of wood to hold the “lead” and absorb the stress of the user.  The graphite ore was cut into large sheets that were then cut into square chunks and fitted into wooden sheaths.

The discoverers of the graphite assumed that it was a lead ore since it was similar to lead in many ways, hence the name pencil “lead”.  We now know that graphite is made from one of the four known forms of carbon, the same material that makes up diamond, coal and Buckminsterfullerene.  The term graphite actually comes from the Greek meaning “to write” and pencil comes from the Latin penicillus (meaning little tail), the name of the brushes used by the early Romans.  The French under Napoleon found a way to mix the powdered graphite with clay to obtain different hardness leads and Germans in the 1600s fired the graphite powder to make fairly usable sticks.  It wasn’t until the late 1700s that the technology became widely available enough to mass produce the pencil effectively.

            The pencil is one of the world’s most efficient tools being able to draw a line that is thirty-five miles long, write over forty-five thousand words and be sharpened around seventeen times.  The yellow color began in the late 1800s when the best graphite available could be found in China.  The color yellow was used in China to signify royalty, so yellow it was.  Over two billions pencils are used every year in the United States alone and the distinctive smell of a sharpened pencil comes from the Incense-cedar, since it is a readily renewable resource.  Pencils today can come in a variety of colors and lead hardness and, despite the availability of reusable, mechanical pencils, the classic yellow pencil is the most commonly used writing tool.