A Short, Informative Essay on the Pencil

Recently, whilst editing The Leopard Prince, it occurred to me that I wasn’t actually sure when the pencil was invented. Oh, dear. Thus, I did a bit of research and you, Gentle Reader, reap the rewards of my labor.

Pencils have been used as far back as the Romans, when sticks of lead were used to draw writing lines on papyrus. In the Renaissance, a stylus made of lead, zinc, silver or an alloy of these metals was used by artists to make silverpoint drawings. 

Modern pencils use graphite-black carbon-as the drawing material, of course. In 1564 a deposit of pure graphite was discovered in Burrowdale, Cumbria in England. The Burrowdale graphite was of such high quality that it could be cut into square sticks and inserted between two pieces of wood. The English Pencil Makers Guild had a monopoly on the Burrowdale graphite-and charged accordingly 

This proved to be a problem for the French during the Napoleonic Wars. Cut off from their supply of pencils-crucial in mapmaking-the French sought another source. In 1795 a French chemist, Nicholas Jacques Conté, discovered that he could use an inferior quality of graphite to make pencils if he powdered the graphite first and mixed it with clay. This mixture was then shaped into sticks and fired. There was another advantage to this method of making the pencil lead. The ratio of graphite to clay could be graded, making pencils that drew darker or lighter lines. 

A few other innovations have been made to the pencil since 1795-the lead is generally round instead of square, for instance-but the pencils used today are essentially Conté’s invention.