Friday, December 24, 2010

History of The Pencil

On Fridays we post weekend events that are of interest to writers. Since there are none this weekend, I thought you may be interested in some trivia.

The pencil is one of the oldest and most used writing utensils. The forerunner of today’s pencil was devised by the Romans and Greeks who used flat pieces of lead on papyrus.

In the 1400’s, graphite (Greek meaning graphum “to write”) was discovered and mined in England. Graphite is one of three forms of pure carbon, diamonds and coal the other two. Graphite was cut into square rods which were bound tightly with twine. Late in the 16th century, a method of gluing strips of wood around graphite was invented.

Initially, the centers were square making it difficult to use any pencil sharpeners. Round graphite pencils came into use during the early 1800’s. By the 1840’s pure graphite mines were depleted so inventors including Henry David Thoreau developed forms of graphite mixed with clay and sometimes water; they were still referred to as lead pencils. An aside is Henry David Thoreau’s father, John, operated the biggest pencil factory in the United States. Henry worked there many years. Erasers were first attached to pencils in 1853.

Today’s mechanized method seems simple.
1. A block of California cedar is cut into slats.
2. The slats are stained and grooves cut into one surface.
3. A graphite clay mixture (“lead”) is put into the grooves and a second slat is bonded to the
4. The slats are sawed into individual pencils.
5. The individual pencils are painted.
6. A ferrule is crimped onto one end followed by an eraser.
7. Pencils are stamped with the company’s name and hardness of the graphite mix (1 is the softest, 4 is the hardest.)

Some famous authors who used pencils are Thoreau (of course), Hemingway, Kerouac, Nabokov, Steinbeck and Francis Scott Key.

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