THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Untold lives blog

28 May 2019

The history of the pencil

The British Library exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark tells the story of how writing flows through the last 5000 years of human history.  Visitors might easily pass by three little pieces of lead in one of the cases.   They are the predecessors of the pencil, one of the favourite writing tools of the last couple of centuries, used by generations of schoolchildren, note-takers, artists and, of course, librarians.

Leads for writing
Three lengths of lead drawn to a point for writing and drawing either specifically for that purpose or taken from stained glass windows and adapted.  Photo courtesy of Museum of Writing Research Collection - University of London

From earlier times, and in particular the Middle Ages, lumps of lead have been used for drawing or planning manuscripts.  Lead leaves a dense silvery line that can be overwritten in ink or paint.

The word ‘pencil’ comes from Old French pincel, and Latin penicillus or a "little tail" , and originally referred to an artist's fine brush of camel hair in the Middle Ages, although the use of a form of brush for drawing goes back to the early petrograph or cave paintings.  From that the stylus developed, sometimes being made of lead, hence our erroneous term for the writing core of a pencil. 

Representation of Philosophy with a brush and a pot in the History of Alexander the Great Representation of Philosophy with a brush and a pot in the History of Alexander the Great (England, 11th century) Royal MS 13 A I, f. 1v

Silverpoint is a drawing technique that dates back to the late Gothic/early Renaissance period.  It was used by artists including Jan van Eyck, Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer and Raphael.  Silverpoint is one variety of metalpoint, where a wire is drawn across the surface of the paper leaving a feint silver line, although lighter than a lead.  Using a stylus or silverpoint, it is not very easy to erase a sentence or even one character. This changed with the widespread use of graphite.

Pencil sketch for a painted initial in an 11th-century Gospel Book from Flanders Pencil sketch for a painted initial in an 11th-century Gospel Book from Flanders Stowe MS 3, f. 11v

The modern pencil was invented in 1795 by Nicholas-Jacques Conte, a scientist serving in the army of Napoleon Bonaparte.  Conte’s original process for manufacturing pencils involved roasting a mixture of water, clay and graphite in a kiln at 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit before encasing the resulting soft solid in a wooden surround.  The shape of that surround can be square, polygonal or round, depending on the pencil’s intended use.  The hardness or softness of the final pencil ‘lead’ can be determined by adjusting the relative fractions of clay and graphite in the roasting mixture.

Oldest known pencil in the worldThe oldest known pencil in the world, found in timbered house built in 1630.  Image courtesy: Faber-Castell

Graphite was first discovered in Europe, in Bavaria at the start of the 15th century; although the Aztecs had used it as a marker several hundred years earlier.  The purest deposits of lump graphite were found in Borrowdale near Keswick in the Lake District in 1564, which spawned a smuggling industry and associated black economy in the area.  Appreciated for leaving a darker mark than lead, the mineral proved so soft and brittle that it required a holder.  Originally, graphite sticks were wrapped in string.  Later, the graphite was inserted into hollowed-out wooden sticks and, thus, the wood-cased pencil was born.  During the 19th century a major pencil manufacturing industry developed around Keswick in order to exploit the high quality of the graphite.  The first factory opened in 1832 under the name of Banks, Son & Co, now the Derwent Cumberland Pencil Company.  Cumberland pencils were those of the highest quality because the graphite left no dust and marked the paper clearly.

Alan E. Cole
Hon Consultant, Museum of Writing Research Collection, University of London.

Come and see some of the first pencils and pens together with some brilliant examples of their use by everyday people as well as some famous hands of science, exploration and history in our exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark

Exhibition poster for Writing - Making Your Mark