Evolution of the Pencil.

Pencils of various ages. Mostly old.
Pencils of various ages. Mostly old.

(This is something I contributed to Pencil Week on Pen Paper Ink Letter.)

Stormy Night in Borrowdale

The legend holds that in the early 1560s (1564?), a large tree – possibly an oak – was uprooted in a storm. Either a traveler or a shepherd or a random passerby notices chunks of a black substance hanging from the upturned roots. Graphite was first believed to be a type of black lead. It was referred to as wadd, black lead and plumbago, from the Latin, meaning “that which acts like lead.” Its existence was well-known throughout Europe at the end of the sixteenth century, and folks with needs for portable and/or erasable writing or drawing equipment were seeking plumbago by 1610 in London.

It was not until the chemical composition of graphite was uncovered in 1779 by K. W. Steele that A. G. Werner suggested the name by which we now know this magical substance: Graphite, from the Greek graphein, meaning “to write.” Graphite is a type of carbon, located molecularly between coal and diamonds. Because of this molecular structure, it works well as a lubricant. Because it is carbon, graphite marks do not fade or react with paper. As such, barring an assault with eraser-bearing enemies, pencil marks really are forever. Sharpie, for instance, fades on plant stakes. Pencil never fails me (General’s Kimberly 9XXB, as it were).

Early Pencils/Graphite Doohickies

In the beginning, graphite was used to mark sheep. But then artists and individuals who did fieldwork requiring note-making on the go started to use it to make more sophisticated marks than merely putting a dark smudge on wool. Chunks of pure graphite were used at first. These were sawed into sticks and wrapped in sheepskin, later in coiled string. Small pieces of graphite were even inserted into hollow ends of reeds and twigs.

Not 400 years old. General's flat sketching pencil.
Not 400 years old. General’s flat sketching pencil.

The earliest wooden pencils were made from pure chunks of graphite, sawed to fit into grooved pieces of wood. This pure graphite from the famed mine in Borrowdale is still considered to be the largest and best deposit of graphite ever discovered. These pencils had leads with a square cross-section because that was the shape into which they could easily and reliably be cut. When one sharpened these pencils, the lead could be fashioned into a round shape with relative ease. Generally, the lead did not go all of the way through the pencil, since the last few inches were unlikely to be used.

Graphite Composites

By 1726, small pieces of graphite which would otherwise be wasted were ground into powder with a mortar. The impurities were removed by sifting, and the powder was mixed with sulfur. This was melted, and workers would knead this mixture on boards, like bread. When it was cooled, it was sawed into cakes which were then in turn cut into square pencil leads. Outside of England, where the Borrowdale mine is located, pencil makers in countries like France and Germany were almost always reliant on the use of binders to form graphite composites from the inferior graphite available. Other binders used in this way included gum, shellac, wax and insinglass (fish bladder goo). These binders produced scratchy pencils that did not leave a dark mark. German pencils were notorious for containing enough sulfur that the cores would become soft and would produce a brimstone-like smell when held up to a flame.

Borrowdale Mine

The mine at Borrowdale was guarded and protected by the Crown, and men worked under loaded guns. The graphite unearthed there was used to make crucibles for manufacturing cannonballs, among other things, in addition to pencil leads. Because of the mine’s bounty, there were no major efforts in England to make pencils in the composite manner used by the rest of Europe until it became clear that the mine was becoming empty.

Conte’

In 1793, England and France were at war. France could not get pencils made with pure Borrowdale graphite or even the inferior – but still usable – composite German pencils. The Minister of War wanted to find someone who could produce superior pencils for the nation’s needs – someone who could do it in France. Nicolas-Jacques Conte’ was born in Normandy in 1775. He was a portrait painter before the revolution and worked as an inventor and engineer after that. He wore an eye patch because of an injury resulting from a hydrogen gas explosion, when he was working on balloons for use in war. He answered the War Minister’s call and, in a matter of days in 1794, he came up with the idea to mix powdered graphite with potter’s clay as binder. The paste was put into molds and dried. When dry, the leads were packed in charcoal and baked at extremely high temperatures. Conte’ patented this process in 1795, and the modern pencil lead was born. These leads were brittle and could not be sawed, as the soft sulfur composites and pure graphite could be. So the shape of the wooden barrel was changed, to account for a deeper slot into which the square lead would be laid. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Conte’ method was widespread in Europe.

From Harper's Ferry History store, 2010.
From Harper’s Ferry History store, 2010.

Graphite Pencils in America

Legend has it that the first American pencils were made by a young woman in Massachusetts (Medford or Danvers, or somewhere else). She took pieces of Borrowdale graphite, mixed it with gum arabic and stuffed the mixture into a hollow twig (the tree species varies according to which version of the legend one accepts). Perhaps the first large-scale pencil manufacturer was William Monroe, a cabinet maker in Roxbury, Massachusetts. There is evidence that he attempted to master the Conte’ process.

There was also Joseph Dixon. Yes, that Dixon. He branched out from crucibles and made stove polish and pencils from graphite. He quit making pencils for a time when merchants in Boston told him that he’d have to use fake foreign labels to make his pencils marketable. He did teach the basics of pencil making to John Thoreau (father of the famous Henry David/David Henry) before that, however. Because Dixon might have known about the Conte’ process, John Thoreau might have also. But in the 1820s, there is no real evidence to suggest that the Conte’ process was known in America.

In 1821, John Thoreau’s brother-in-law Charles Dunbar found a deposit of graphite in Bristol, New Hampshire. He partnered with Cyrus Stowe of Concord to mine this excellent graphite. However, they mistakenly only took out a seven-year lease. They enlisted the help of John Thoreau because they had to tear out as much graphite in seven years as they could. Both dropped out soon after, and John founded John Thoreau and Company. John Thoreau’s pencils were made with a composite of ground graphite, glue, bayberry wax and spermaceti. Because of his superior graphite, he was able to sell his pencils without a foreign label and received notice from the MA Agricultural Society in 1824. Still, they were inferior to French or German pencils made with the Conte’ process.

Replica pencil from The Shop at Walden Pond.
Replica pencil from The Shop at Walden Pond.

Our Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau did know something about pencils. In order to pay for his education, he went to New York City with his father in 1834 to sell pencils. Henry David Thoreau was looking for work after quitting teaching over disputes over beating the students. He wanted to make a better pencil. He researched pencils at Harvard’s library. Walter Harding, in The Days of Henry Thoreau, claims that Thoreau discovered the Conte’ process in an encyclopedia, in a library at Harvard. However, Henry Petroski (who literally wrote the book on pencils) maintains that there could not have been such an encyclopedia at the time and that Thoreau likely connected graphite and clay crucibles and got the idea to mix graphite with powdered clay. No matter which explanation is true, Thoreau experimented and mastered the Conte’ process, but he was still not satisfied because his pencils were still gritty. So he went about inventing a new machine for pulverizing the graphite wherein the finest particles rise on air currents are are collected in a box above the chamber of river stones which do the grinding. The rest remained to be reground.

Thoreau dreamed of a seemless pencil (one made without any cuts in the wood running parallel to the barrel) and even invented a machine which could bore a hole into a piece of wood through which a core could be inserted. Like Conte’, Thoreau discovered that he could produce different and consistent grades of leads by varying the graphite and clay mixture. Thoreau and Co. produced four different grades of pencil. Thoreau and Co. pencils were recognized as the finest American pencils in their heyday. Eventually, however, it came to an end. Smith & McDougal bought the superior graphite produced by Thoreau’s machine for electrotyping, which was all kept secret until the Thoreaus stopped making pencils altogether in 1853.

Evolution? The Faber-Castell Perfect Pencil (left) does seem like the pinnacle of pencildom...
Evolution? The Faber-Castell Perfect Pencil (right) does seem like the pinnacle of pencildom…

More on the Evolution of Pencil Anatomy

We have mostly looked at the evolution of the graphite core of the pencil, which does indeed account for most developments in pencildom. But certainly some other points merit a mention.

Pencil leads were still square as late 1830, when German pencil makers (possibly French or English) started to extrude the leads through a round die. Round leads did not become the norm until the mid 1870s. Modern pencil leads are boiled in wax, so that it coats every bit of graphite with this lubricant. The result is smoother writing and – often – less smearing. We even have pencils today which use something other than clay as a binder, such as extruded plastic pencils (Empire in the 1980s, the new Staedtler Wopex).

Some of the first wood-cased pencils were made of juniper species, and they resembled modern carpenter pencils. Because of the grain and balance of strength and softness, Easter Red Cedar was used in pencils until the early 20th century. The wood became so scarce that pencil companies would go around buying up cedar fence posts, replacing these fences with metal ones. Red Cedar was replaced by Incense Cedar, a Western species. Adjustment was slow to the new wood because, despite its name, it does not exude the strong aroma of Red Cedar. Incense cedar was often dyed red and perfumed, in an effort to make the transition smoother. Today, Incense Cedar is the wood of choice for the best pencils. Other species, such as basswood, jelutong and various pine trees, are used by different manufacturers in different countries.

At first, pencils were made individually, with a groove being cut to accept the core, and then another piece of wood was attached to match the shape cut out. Modern pencils are made from slats, which are pieces of wood into which grooves are cut to accept the leads. Glue is put into these grooves, and the leads are dropped into them. Then, an identical slat is glued on top of the slat containing the cores, and the sandwich is compressed until the glue dries. These are cut by precise machines into the round, hexagonal or even triangular pencils we are used to today.

Hymen Lippman is credited as being the first person to attach an eraser to pencils, in 1858. These were inserted into the non-business-end of the pencil and required sharpening just like the writing/drawing end. Eventually, erasers began to be attached by metal ferrules, which are crimped or glued onto the pencil and hold the eraser at the other end. During WWII, metal ferrules were banned in the United States, resulting in the use of plastic ferrules. Dixon Ticonderoga used a green plastic ferrule with two yellow stripes painted onto it, resulting in the color scheme of their iconic pencil today.

Teachers and other folks who fretted over children were resistant to the attachment of erasers to pencils, worried that the practice would encourage carelessness. Learning to write in the early and mid-1980s, we did not have erasers on our pencils. Still, most pencils sold in the United States do have attached erasers, while “art pencils” and pencils made in or for Europe usually do not.

Pencil Grading

While the use of two different grading systems in the world today can result in some confusion, a quick explanation of how these grades work makes them easy to understand and utilize. Pencils in the United States are generally graded from #1 to #4, with #1 being the softest and #4 being the hardest. Several manufacturers even produce a fractional pencil between #2 and #3, such as 2 ½, 2.5, etc.

In the rest of the world (and in American “art” pencils), there is a more sophisticated system by which manufacturers grade pencils. At the far end, there is the H range, which stands for Hard. The higher the number in front of the H, the harder the lead. At the other end of the spectrum, there is the B range. B stands for Black, and the higher the number preceding the B, the softer and darker the pencil mark. In the middle stands HB, which generally corresponds with the #2 pencil in America. In some systems, there is another pencil, F (for Fine) between H and HB, which is also a 2 ½ in American pencils.
B=1
HB=2
H=3
2H=4

There is No Number Two

We all remember being required to use number two pencils for exams, but here’s the problem: there is no such thing. Manufacturers have different interpretations of different grades. Some contain different binders, different wax, no wax, extra carbon, etc. Even #2 Dixon Ticonderogas are different, depending on whether they were made in Mexico or China. (If you’re going to take exams in pencil, get yourself some Musgrave or General’s test scoring pencils!) Grades even vary by market or culture. For instance, German pencils run on the hard side, while Japanese pencils are generally softer and darker than pencils made in Europe or the US.

Conclusion

The modern pencil still does what it did 450 years ago: it makes marks. It has also undoubtedly left its mark on human civilization and various cultures. How many poems, philosophical theories, scientific insights or humorous characters might have gone unrecorded, were it not for the portable writing technology embodied by the pencil? Certainly, there are ballpoint pens and smartphones, but pencils were the first truly portable aids to memory and thought exploration. I carry one wherever I go, though never in the same pocket as my fancy phone.

Selected Sources

The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance (Henry Petroski)

The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography (Walter Harding)

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