The Origin and use of Pencils

Pencils are inexpensive and are scattered all around. This is especially true when there are young children around. They need pencils to do their homework and they need pencil sharpeners to keep their blunt ends sharp. The best pencil sharpeners are the ones that plug into electrical sockets and quickly render a pencil useable again.

The best pencils are encased in wooden tubes but technology ever changing and ever trying to make a more economical product has now pencils made with synthetic casings. These don’t seem to work as well with pencil sharpeners as the old fashioned kind do. When my brother and I were children, we had plenty pencils but no pencil sharpeners. Only these were at the school. At home, if our pencil lead broke or wore down, we were not allowed to sharpen them ourselves but our parents were adept at sharpening them with pocket knives. To this day, I much prefer this method of sharpening pencils. I’ve learned it is quite an art.

Yet, despite technology the pencil is still the best tool for learning how to write for any age, and especially so for kindergartners and those in school. It has been around, in one form or another since the mid 1500’s. The modern version, however is relatively new, having been first successfully produced in 1775 by Nicholas J. Conte, an officer in Napoleon’s army. Although often referred to as lead pencils, they are not made of lead, but are graphite. It was so named because it was first mistaken for lead. The graphite is black carbon, and was first discovered in 1564 in Borrowdale, Cumbria, England.

The first pencils were pure graphite sheets that was cut into a squared rod and held with a wooden holder., or inserted into these holders. Before these first crude pencils came into use, writing was done by a little brush, called the penicellus, a Latin word meaning little tale. Thus, the origin of the modern pencil. (Old French pincel is derived from the same Latin root.)

The Faber Company was at first unsuccessful in producing an adequate pencil. It became successful only after Conte perfected the pencil making method. Ground graphite is mixed with clay in varying amounts according to the hardness desired, and then is mixed with that forms it into a dough. Then it is passed through a mold that produces a thin rope that is baked in a kiln.

The wood casing for pencils is from either red cedar or pine. Slim sticks are cut in two sections and are grooved to hold the lead. They are then cut into pencil sizes and the finishing touches, the erasers, color, etc., are added. Today there are 350 different varieties of pencils and each designed for a specific use. They come in seventy-two different colors.

Black graphite pencils range in hardness from one to nineteen. And inventiveness has not stopped there. Today specialty pencils can write on cloth, cellophane, plastics, movie film, and glass. And yet these nifty little tools of the writers’ trade remain the least expensive and the most valuable and most available. Who can, as an example, put a computer in a pocket or behind the ear?