The Pencil: Humble and Trusty
By Dr. Rizwana Rahim
since the man wanted to memorialize what he said,
he has developed and made use of different instruments
over time. Sharpened stone tools used by the caveman,
to the Greek stylus to quill made of various materials,
and recently the keyboard of your electronic devices.
Somewhere in this long sequence fits your humble
but trusty ‘pencil’.
Literally dime a dozen, they’re everywhere.
Rather, almost everywhere now, as they
give way, increasingly, to other instruments of
writing. Still, when your fountain and ball-point
pens run suddenly dry and your keyboard and its
paraphernalia quit -- even as your thoughts are
bursting to be spilled on paper or screen ---, you’ll
have (hopefully!) a pencil lying nearby to record
what you think the world needs to know.
On such humble but basic essential things and their
evolution, at least one person has written some
notable books. Henry Petrosky, a civil engineering
academic who specializes in ‘failure analysis’
has written on industrial design and history of
everyday objects, from pins, zippers, paper clips,
forks and silverware, and, yes on ‘The Pencil:
A History of Design and Circumstance’ (1990),
as well as ‘The Evolution of Useful Things’:
How Everyday artifacts From Forks and Pins to Paper
Clips and Zippers Came To Be As They Are’
(1992), ‘Small Things Considered: Why There
is No Perfect Design’ (2003), ‘Success
Through Failure: The Paradox of Design’ (2006).
Let us get a few basic misconceptions out of the
way. ‘Lead’ in the pencil evokes a series
of lead-associated health risks, but the pencil
lead is not really lead. It is actually a mixture
of clay and graphite, and graphite is nothing but
a crystallized form of carbon. Graphite was discovered
in Keswick, England in the mid-16th century.
In the May 2007 issue of ‘Discover’,
a science monthly, Dean Christopher has compiled
some interesting things about the pencil:
A Greek poet, Philip of Thessaloniki , has referred
to lead-writing instruments in the 1st century BC,
but the modern pencil dates back to 1565, according
to Swiss naturalist, Conrad Gesner.
It was an 18th century German chemist, A. G. Werner,
who named it after the Greek ‘graphein’,
to write. Pencil is derived from the Latin ‘penicillus’,
meaning little tail. What makes pencil marks is
when tiny graphite flecks (less than a thousandth
of an inch wide) stick to the fiber that makes the
An average pencil has enough graphite to draw a
line about 35 miles long, or write 45,000 words,
although this hasn’t been tried and confirmed
The clay-graphite manufacturing process for pencil
was patented by Nicolas-Jacques Conte` in 1795,
and the first pencil-sharpener was patented by Bernard
Lassimore in 1828, with an improved mechanical sharpener
by Therry des Estwaux in 1847.
With pencil, you had to have the eraser. This came,
courtesy of the French, who used a vegetable gum
(caoutchouc), now known as the rubber to
erase pencil marks. Before that, bread crumbs were
used for the same purpose. While most US pencils
have an eraser at the end, the European brands have
Among the famous pencil-users was Henry David Thoreau
who wrote ‘Walden’ in pencil. He is
believed to have even designed the pencils he used.
Not all that exciting about it, when you consider
the fact that his father owned a pencil-producing
business near Boston .
The first American mass-producer of pencils was
Eberhard Faber, which was in 1861 from his factory
in New York City . Pencils were also part of the
basic essential government issue to Union soldiers
during the US Civil War.
Mechanical pencils were patented in 1822. The company
that was founded by the British developers was doing
well till 1941 when it was bombed out by the Nazis.
In the former USSR after the 1917 Revolution, the
monopoly for making pencils was awarded to the Russian-American
entrepreneur, Arman Hammer.
More than half of the total number of pencils produced
in the world come from China . In 2004, Chinese
factories produced some 10 billion pencils, enough
to circle around the world more than 40-times.
When pens don’t work, the pencils do. They
can write in zero-gravity, and were used in early
US and Russian space flights. NASA engineers had
worried about the combustibility of pencil wood
in a pure-oxygen atmosphere of the spacecraft, as
well as the risk of floating bits of graphite. After
the Apollo I fire in 1965, NASA banned pencils on
manned space flights, and started using pressurized
Fisher Space pen (named after its developer).
Pencils (sharpened) have been considered (maybe
even used) as a lethal weapon. In his autobiography,
G. Gordon Liddy (of the Watergate fame) mentions
looking, once, for a sharpened pencil to drive into
the throat of John Dean, the person he hated for
The largest pencil ever is Castell 9000, displayed
at its manufacturer’s plant near Kuala Lumpur,
Malaysia. It is made of Malaysian wood and a polymer,
and stands 65 ft high. On the opposite end, the
tiniest one was developed by engineers at the University
of California, Santa Barbara. Using as an atomic
force microscope pencil, it can draw lines as small
as 50 nanometer (or 2 millionth of an inch) wide.
Your humble pencil, even if you didn’t know
it, has a rich history, and very few things are
as dependable as your humble pencil is.