It must have been a relief when pencils were invented, at last, an easy-to use alternative to quills and ink. And you can rub out your mistakes, too. Straight to the Point
The part of a pencil you write with isn’t lead but graphite, a type of carbon. In 1565 a huge deposit of pure graphite was found near Borrowdale in Cumbria. People didn’t know exactly what it was then, they just knew it was very useful for making marks on things, like sheep, and they called it plumbago, Latin for lead ore (that’s why the graphite in pencils is often called lead).
The graphite in Cumbria is the only pure kind ever found, so whoever found it is the person to thank for pencils. Soon people realized that the graphite could be used to write or draw with if it was cut into sticks and, because it’s very soft, encased in a wooden holder.
Graphite was found in other parts of the world but in a much less pure form, which meant it had to be powdered and didn’t make very good pencils. In I 795 Nicholas Jacques Conte, an officer in Napoleon’s army, found a way of firing powdered graphite and clay in a kiln to make graphite rods that made good pencils.
By varying the amounts of clay and graphite he could adjust the hardness. Now you can buy softer pencils (B, 2B, 3B, etc), harder ones (H, 2H, 3H, etc) and in between ones (HB). Coloured pencils weren’t invented until the 1920s. They’re made from colour pigments mixed with wax or oil-based binders, not graphite at all.
Here today, gone tomorrow. Rubber erasers weren’t invented until 1770, by Joseph Priestley, but before that people used bread (you should try it). In 1858 Hyman Lipman thought of attaching a small eraser to the end of a pencil. How long did it take you to draw?
2B OR NOT 2B Hail the mighty pencil! Use pencils to draw a picture your parents will think is good enough to put up on the wall. Add a copy of your work of art in the frame below for your records.
A typical pencil will write over 45,000 words in its lifetime. If you drew a line non-stop (except for sharpening) with a new pencil, it would be at least 35 miles long. Pencils rule where pens fail, under water, upside down and in outer space.