Remember the feeling of learning how to hold a pencil? From scribbles to words, with the pencil, you learned how to express yourself on paper! And though it is often disregarded, the pencil is one of the greatest inventions and one of the most effective tools of communication. So let’s raise our pencils and pay a tribute to this very humble tool:
“Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak,” states the first of Margaret Atwood’s 10 rules of writing. “But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.”
Modern pencils owe it to an ancient Roman writing instrument called the stylus (a thin metal rod) which was used to leave a light yet readable mark on papyrus (early form of paper). The styluses then switched to using lead as the core before moving on to the modern and current form of using non-toxic graphite.
Graphite came into widespread use following the discovery of a large graphite deposit in Borrowdale, England in 1564. But because it was so soft and brittle , it needed a holder. Originally, graphite sticks were wrapped in string which had to be unraveled as the graphite wore down. The next major leap was hollowing out a stick of cedar and then sticking the graphite in these hollow wooden sticks and thus, wood cased pencils were born.
Nuremberg, Germany was the birthplace of the first mass-produced pencils in 1662. But the modern pencil was invented in 1795 by Nicholas-Jacques Conte, of France, who discovered the process of mixing graphite with clay and firing them in a kiln at high temperatures to achieve the different levels of hardness and darkness and then pressed together into thin rods. This is more or less, exactly how pencil cores are made to this day.
Did you know that more than 14 billion pencils are produced in the world every year, enough to circle the earth 62 times? And these 14 billion pencils are produced by innumerable brands in all shapes and styles and widths available and range from the orthodox wooden pencils to the famous yellow pencils to mechanical pencils that we find in kids’ pencil boxes.
Another fact is that authors like Ernest Hemmingway and John Steinbeck used pencils exclusively to write their books.
If you went back to the 1970s and 1980s, our earliest memories of pencils would probably be a white coloured pencil with pink flowers all over it and a green band at the bottom. Can you guess the brand and name of those? Yes, indeed they were called Flora Pencils from Camlin. And guess what, you can still buy these pencils and carry a bit of history forward to the next generation.