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Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Since ancient times, the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used metal lead styluses to scratch images onto papyrus. Not exactly a pencil but the idea was there. About 1500 a large deposit of crystallized carbon was found in Cumbria, England. The local farmers used it to mark their livestock. The material was very pure and solid. Today we know it as graphite.

The economic value of graphite was huge and the Royal Family knew it. They took over and guarded all the graphite mine deposits in the kingdom. But crude pencils were still made out of graphite sticks smuggled out of the mines. For years England maintained a monopoly on the production of stick pencils.

The French and the Germans, with no pure graphite, were not able to compete with the English for almost 200 years. Then they invented a way to use powdered graphite (a poorer quality than solid graphite but it was all they had). They mixed the powder with sulfur and antimony to make at least acceptable pencil sticks. About the same time, two Italians devised a way to encase the graphite powder sticks in hollowed-out Juniper wood, and the modern type pencil was created.

In 1795, Frenchman Nicholas Conte discovered a method of mixing graphite powder with clay and baking it in a kiln. By changing the ratio of powder and clay, the hardness of the pencil rod could be varied, thus giving us the wide range of pencil softness we have today. Sixty years later, Hymen Lipan invented the attached eraser fixed to the end of the pencil; although outside of America, people use pencils without attached erasers.

During the 19th Century, Eberhard Faber and Joseph Dixon, two pencil moguls, established techniques to mass-produce the common pencil and lower the cost. By 1900 240,000 pencils were sold per day in the United States. Red Cedar and Incense Cedar woods are used as they didn’t splinter when the pencil is sharpened. The colors that pencils are painted vary by country. Americans like yellow, Germans and Brazilians prefer green or blue, southern Europeans like red or black, Australians favor red pencils with black rings, and Indians dark red with black lines. Today, nearly 14 billion pencils are produced annually worldwide.

Many famous people chose pencils over pens. Benjamin Franklin sold pencils, George Washington surveyed with them; John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and Vladimir Nabokov only wrote with pencils, and Henry David Thoreau actually designed pencils before becoming a recluse; his father owned a pencil making company.

Here is some interesting pencil trivia for you:   

The average pencil holds enough graphite to draw a line 35 miles long or write 45,000 words, depending on how often and how much you sharpened it. (We wonder who tested this theory?)

The French came up with the idea of using rubber to erase pencil marks. Previously, writers removed mistakes with bread crumbs.

Eberhard Faber built the first American factory to mass-produce pencils in 1861. Just in time to make pencils standard issue for every Union soldier during the Civil War.

Today, more than half of all lead pencils are made in China. They produce about 7 billion per year. (Enough so that each Chinese person can have their own)

Early American space missions included pencils among their tools but scientists were worried about the inflammability of wooden pencils in a pure oxygen environment. After the Apollo I fire, pencils were banned in favor of pens.

The world’s largest pencil was manufactured in New York City in 2007 by Ashrita Furman, a professional setter of Guinness records (he has over 300). His pencil is 76 feet long, weighs 18,000 lbs. (4,500 lbs. are graphite) and cost him $20,000 to build.

If you accidently stab yourself with a pencil point, don’t worry about lead poisoning. Lead pencils have never contained lead; only clay and graphite. BUT until a few years ago, the yellow paint used on the pencil may have contained lead, so it shouldn’t be chewed on.

The average pencil is seven inches long, with just a half-inch eraser. So take heart, optimism is not dead.

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