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How the Simple Little Pencil Changed the World Forever

Writing for the Common Man

row of yellow pencils

The Impact of the Pencil on the World

The creation of the pencil helped bring about the Renaissance. The simple, little pencil - its power and presence taken for granted today - gave common people the ability to write.

Wow. I'd never thought of it before, but Michael J. Gelb brought the idea that the simple pencil changed the world to my attention in his book How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci.

The pencil changed the world because everyone could record knowledge and ideas. I had never imagined what it would be like NOT to have writing implements available whenever you wanted them, not to have a pencil crammed in every drawer and by every notepad.

I don't know about you, but I'd ignored the impact of the work-a-day common pencil. After all, we've held them since our fingers could grasp them. They've been part of every classroom, every beginning-of-the-school-year supply list, every early memory of writing we've ever had. We've used them to calculate math problems, jot notes, draw doodles, create sketches, and write letters.

Pencils have existed for so long and have become so common that we no longer give thought to its history and the impact it had on the world.

The Lead That Led to a Life-Altering Implement

Think about this. Before there were pencils, only the educated, wealthy people owned ink, a precious substance custom-made from various pigments and binders by individual writers. "Scribes" and writers needed to have a stash of quills sharpened into points from goose and swan feathers. Most people who were capable of writing had a separate surface for creating documents, a way to separate the ink and prevent spills from running onto the manuscript they were working on.

Writing implements were hard to transport and required a smooth surface to write on. (Would you like to have a breakable bottle of expensive ink crammed into your pants pocket? And where do you propose putting that long, sharp quill?)

Plumbago Changed Everything

The Aztecs had been using graphite for hundreds of years before someone in Bavaria in the early 1400s discovered it. Then, in 1564, a huge deposit of the purest form of "plumbago" was discovered underneath an uprooted tree near modern-day Keswick, England. "Plumbago" meant "black lead," the term used to describe the gloppy gray stuff they thought was lead. In reality, it wasn't lead, but graphite. The word "graphite" wasn't used until 1789, a couple of hundred years after its discovery in England, coined from the Greek word "graphein," meaning "to write."

A year after the massive lode of "black wad," the local people's name for plumbago" had been discovered, shepherds were using it to mark their sheep. By 1565, a Swiss naturalist, Conrad Gessner, published a drawing of graphite encased in wood, showcasing the first pencil. The idea of the pencil took off across Europe.

Plumbago changed written communication, but it also changed trade and commerce. England’s high-quality plumbago was used in molds for cannonballs, making it extremely valuable. Because the plumbago discovered in England was so pure, thieves wanted it, and a whole new smuggling industry was born. The English Crown marched in to take over the mines and protect the wealth of the country, thus creating a monopoly on the market.

The Pencil as a Weapon of War

With the English crown fiercely protecting their stash of highest quality graphite, France was left out in the cold. The Minister of War asked Nicholas-Jacques Conte, a scientist in Napoleon Bonaparte's army, to figure out a way to make a writing implement without English plumbago.

Conte got busy working with the low-quality graphite. He ground it up, mixed it with wet clay, rolled it, and baked it, producing "Crayon's Conté," from the French word "Craie" for chalk.

You've heard the phrase, "The pen is mightier than the sword?"

So is the pencil.

Thanks to Conté, the French didn't have to gravel at the feet of England for their graphite supply. Their soldiers could draw maps and communicate more easily even with the lower-quality graphite because of Conté's work. Conté's pencils were a weapon for writing that increased the effectiveness of their army.

All over the world, companies and innovators started experimenting with pencil production, thrilled that they could use lower-quality graphite and still have a workable pencil.

Pencil-producing was big business, thanks to the number of people who were pushing them. A company naked Messrs Banks, Son and Co. had set up in Keswick, England near the purest plumbago in the world and were manufacturing pencils to the tune of five to six MILLION a year by 1853.

Pencil point on black background

The Pencil as a Necessary Commodity

In America, graphite was found in New Hampshire by Charles Dunbar in 1832. He knew about the pencil pandemonium and the consistent need of people to own them. He went into business with John Thoreau, (Henry David's dad) making the best pencils in America. Together they developed refining techniques, grinding the plumbago finer than their competitors making the Thoreau pencil less brittle and less greasy than their competitors. In fact, because of their process, the Thoreau Pencil Company developed a scale for rating the hardness of the graphite which still exists today.

The scale of #1, #2. #3. and #4 indicates the hardness of the "lead." The #2 pencil is the most popular because it's soft enough not to break easily and hard enough not to smudge.

The pencil business was good to the Thoreaus, paying for Henry David's admission to Harvard, the family's new home in Concord, Massachusetts, and the publication of Walden and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

Like everything else, a good product is copied, and new competitors spring up. Eventually, while the Thoreaus kept up the front of manufacturing pencils, their profit came from the ultra-secretive selling of raw plumbago to a printer who Boston who was pioneering a new process called "electrotyping."

The Color of Pencils

Originally, pencils were painted to mask the poor quality of the wood that surrounded the graphite core. The best pencils were "au naturel," unvarnished.

That all changed at the World's Fair of 1889 when a company promoted a "luxury pencil" painted brilliant, canary yellow. The pencil was named "Kooh-I-Noor" after the biggest diamond known at the time, and the idea caught on. From that point on, most pencils were painted bright yellow to indicate they were high-quality, "luxury" writing tools.

Other Fascinating Pencil Facts You Need to Know

  • Graphite is actually pure carbon, the same as a diamond. The two materials are on opposite ends of the carbon spectrum: graphite is brittle, dark, and opaque; diamonds are hard, bright, and clear.

  • The graphite left behind on paper while writing is 1000 times thinner than human hair.

  • In 1770, an English clergyman named Joseph Priestly figured out that a South American gum product being harvested could remove pencil marks if the substance was rubbed across the graphite. That gum product became known as "rubber."

  • Before the production of "rubber" erasers, people simply balled up clumps of old bread and blotted them on the marks.

  • Graphite is still valuable. In 2005, Iran was caught smuggling graphite to use as a casing for weapons-grade uranium fitted into warheads.

  • NASA spends a lot of money on creating a pencil that could be used in space. Currently, the graphite dust that would be released from writing with a pencil could be harmful if breathed in. That pencil dust could clog delicate filters or short-circuit electrical equipment. They're not looking for a better mousetrap, but a better pencil.

  • Pencils can write underwater and in zero gravity.

The Point to This Pencil Talk

Who knew that the discovery of black wad-plumbago-graphite would lead to the creation of a simple writing implement that would forever change the world?

If you're wondering where the term "pencil" came from, it's taken from a Latin word, "pencillus," loosely defined as a "little tail," referring to small ink brushes used in the Middle Ages.

One small, little pencil gave the common man access to knowledge and communication and created a huge industry.

Today, 15 billion pencils are used every year in the United States alone, enough to circle the globe 62 times.

colored pencils in cups


3,451 views2 comments


Dan P
Dan P
Mar 17

Thank you for this article. I love articles about writing with pens and pencils.

Replying to

Are you a writer, Dan? I, too, love knowing about pencils and pens, and I'm a total sucker for blank notebooks and journals. (The idea that I can fill all those blank pages with great thoughts is undeniably motivational!) A few years ago, I got on a roll. I wrote about Thoreau and his pencils. Then I wrote about why they are so often yellow. Then I wrote this piece. So much fun! Thanks for reading and responding!

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