Invention of the “Lead” Pencil Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The lead pencil, which made writing, drawing, and other forms of marking easier and more permanent, readable, and otherwise discernible, was invented after a large graphite deposit was unearthed in rural England.

Summary of Event

Before the advent of the lead, or graphite, pencil, writing without ink was accomplished either with a metallic lead stylus—hence the term “lead” applied to the similar-looking graphite pencil—or with a pencil brush made of animal hairs. The lead stylus left a faint, hard-to-read impression, and the pencil brush made a dry and much darker impression, giving it the qualities that characterize contemporary pencils. The brush’s impression wore out quickly, though, limiting its practicality and usefulness. Pencil (lead), invention of Gesner, Conrad Cesalpino, Andrea Elizabeth I Elizabeth I (queen of England) Gesner, Conrad Cesalpino, Andrea

Miners were brought to England from Germany to dig for the mineral later called graphite, a newfound substance used for writing and drawing. Graphite was appealing because it left a dark and readable—yet erasable—impression.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

The word “pencil” is derived from the Latin penicillus, a variant form of the Latin word penis, meaning tail. The penicillus was made by pushing small bundles of fine animal hair, usually from the tail of the animal, into a hollow cylinder.

Pencils were developed not because their inventors set out to create a form that resembled the brushes used by the Romans, but rather because graphite deposits in England provided a raw material that was effective for writing. These instruments, once created, looked enough like the Roman writing instruments that they were named for them, which lead to the misnomer “lead” in lead pencil.

The material from which the earliest pencils were made has been variously called wadd, wadt, kellow, killow, Borrowdale lead, and black lead. Legend relates that shepherds in the English county of Cumberland, in what is generally referred to as the Lake District, first came upon the mineral when a large tree was uprooted by a storm, exposing the graphite, or plumbago, beneath it.

People in the area did not know how to classify the substance, which they had never before encountered. The substance was not malleable like most metals. It certainly could not be classified as a stone because it was not hard. People began to use pieces of it wrapped in paper, string, or vines for both writing and drawing. Indeed, the term “graphite,” by which the substance is known today, is derived from the Greek word for writing, graphein, although the substance was not named graphite until late in the eighteenth century. As late as the nineteenth century, in some parts of England, pencils were still referred to as vines, indicating the material in which graphite was once wrapped.

Those who used the new mineral valued it because it was much easier than a quill pen to write with. Also, the mineral left a dark, readable impression, yet it could also be rubbed out easily.

In 1565, Queen Elizabeth I imported workers from Germany to Cumberland County to mine the county’s minerals, including plumbago or graphite in the Borrowdale mines. Numerous uses were found for what was called wadd, which was generally used by wrapping cylindrical pieces of graphite in string or vines so that people writing or drawing with it would not soil their fingers. These pieces of wadd wrapped in this way were the earliest, primitive pencils.

In 1565, Swiss-German physiologist and naturalist Conrad Gesner, who is often credited with inventing the pencil, published his most significant book, De rerum fossilium, lapidum, et gemmarum maximè, figuris et similitudinibus liber De rerum fossilium, lapidum, et gemmarum maximè, figuris et similitudinibus liber (Gesner) (on the shapes and resemblances of fossils, stones, and gems). In it, he wrote about, among other things, the amazing substance that had been found in Cumberland County and about its uses in writing and, more particularly, in drawing. He did take credit for inventing the pencil, however, but some later scholars have attributed its invention to him.

The Italian botanist Andrea Cesalpino wrote about the substance in De metallicis libri tres De metallicis libri tres (Cesalpino) (1602; three books on metals), calling it “Borrowdale lead” after the area where it was mined. He claimed that a similar substance found in Germany was called bismuth. Cesalpino compared Borrowdale lead to molybdenum, saying that it felt slippery and stained the hands of those who touched it. He also noted that artists used thin sticks of the substance, inserted into small tubes, but not in the wooden “tubes,” or casings, that distinguish modern pencils.

The earliest wooden casings appeared in the early seventeenth century. People grew frustrated using wadd the way it had been devised earlier, so they came up with ways to stabilize the wadd by gluing it to wood in which a groove had been carved and then by placing a corresponding piece of wood on top and either gluing it to the lower piece or binding it tightly with string or metal. This earlier sort of pencil required frequent sharpening, but writers and artists, who had grown used to sharpening quills for writing and drawing, had no difficulty trimming the points of pencils as necessary.

According to legend, an unidentified Keswick joiner working in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was a pioneer in encasing rods of wadd in wood. He manufactured and sold such pencils, some of them bought by people who gave them as valued gifts to their friends. By 1662, pencil making was recognized by the carpenters’ guild of Nuremberg, Germany, as an area of specialization. Pencil makers soon became members of the carpenters’ guild. Such recognition was essential to marketing their product.

The earliest pencils were made from plumbago, also know as lead, or from similar substances, usually mixed with clay to stabilize them. As pencils came to be encased in wooden cylinders, the cylinders were painted, generally in yellow, with lead-based paints. Modern pencils, however, contain no lead, either in the substance encased in the wooden cylinder or in the paint used to decorate it. Modern pencils do not differ much from earlier kinds. Wood, often cedar, is grooved lengthwise and laid flat. The writing compound is then placed in the groove, after which another strip of wood is placed on the lower strip and glued in place.

Significance

The development of the pencil lent a flexibility to writing that had never been seen. Before the time of the pencil, writing was a tedious process that involved using a metallic stylus, whose marks were almost too light to read, or sharpening goose quills that often became dull. Also, writing with ink was permanent, whereas marks made by pencils could be expunged easily.

Pencils were well developed by the early nineteenth century when John Thoreau (1787-1859), father of Henry David Thoreau, became one of the earliest pencil manufacturers in the United States. Henry worked in his father’s pencil factory and also traveled with his father to other cities marketing their product.

Heated political debate occurred when pencil manufacturers had to decide whether to put erasers on the ends of their pencils. Some outraged purists argued that to do so would encourage sloppiness because, with erasers, people would write carelessly and then expunge what they had written.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Atkin, William K., Raneiro Corbelletti, and Vincent R. Fiore. Pencil Techniques in Modern Design. New York: Reinhold, 1953. The authors consider some of the more important uses of the pencil historically and delve briefly into its early development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Basalla, George. The Evolution of Technology. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. In this overall view of how various technologies have evolved, Basalla gives passing attention to the invention of the pencil as a new technology in the sixteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ecenbarger, William. “What’s Portable, Chewable, Doesn’t Leak, and Is Recommended by Ann Landers?” Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine (June 16, 1985): 14-19. A popular essay on the pencil that offers some insights into its history and development.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lefebure, Molly. Cumberland Heritage. London: Arrow Books, 1974. The author writes about the area in which the great graphite deposits were first found around Seatoller Fell and of how they led to the early manufacture of pencils.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Petroski, Henry. The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Originally published in 1989, this is the quintessential book on the history of the pencil. Well written and exhaustive, it is essential (and highly pleasurable) reading for anyone seriously interested not only in the invention of the pencil but also in the history of writing technology, communications, and design.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ritter, Steve. “What’s That Stuff? Pencils and Pencil Lead.” Science & Technology 79, no. 42 (October 15, 2001). A brief, easy-to-read article on the composition of the lead pencil and the history of the lead pencil in general.

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