11 Things You Might Not Know About Pencils

Because today is the modern pencil’s birthday, sort of. Happy birthday, number 2s everywhere!

Photo | Pixabay

Photo | Pixabay

Happy 158th birthday to the pencil with attached eraser! It was on March 30, 1858, that Hymen L. Lipman received a patent for his remarkable invention — a tube of wood with graphite at one end and a rubber eraser at the other. Lipman, born in 1817 in Jamaica to Jewish parents, came to Philadelphia around 1829. The family settled here, and Lipman became a stationer, selling paper, pens, ink and the like. In 1840, he started the first envelope company in the country. Eight years later, he married Mary A. Lehman, daughter of the founder of the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy (precursor to the University of the Sciences).

Lipman’s pencil had an eraser that was inserted into the hollowed-out wooden pencil the same way the graphite was; users could sharpen either end. In 1862 he sold the patent to one Joseph Reckendorfer for $100,000. Reckendorfer then sued the Faber company, a German pencil maker, for patent infringement. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled that the erasered pencil was simply a combination of two previously existing objects with no new use and therefore not a proper “invention.” Here are a few more penciled-in facts you might not know about both ends of every writer’s favorite tool.

1. The word “pencil” comes from the Middle English pensel, which derives from the Latin penicillus, a diminutive form of peniculus, meaning “brush,” which itself is a diminutive form of penis, which means, well, penis. Hmm. The word originally referred to a small brush used for writing.

2. The lead in a pencil isn’t lead. It’s graphite, originally from a large trove of top-quality solid graphite found in Borrowdale, in England’s Lake District, in the 16th century. But it looked like lead, so the English called it “plumbago,” from the Latin for “lead.” (It’s actually a form of carbon, just like coal.) Once folks figured out how handy graphite was for making marks on sheep (seriously!), the mine became so valuable that guards were posted to keep workers from stealing it. Because the “leads” whittled from the stuff were brittle, users would wrap them in sheepskin or place them between blocks of wood to keep them from breaking. Graphite was also used to line the molds in making cannonballs, so the Crown tightly controlled production. During the Napoleonic Wars, when France was cut off from England by blockade, a French army officer, Nicolas Jacques Conté, invented a method of mixing the more common powdered graphite with clay and molding it into rods that were fired in a kiln. This became the core of the common lead pencil.

3. Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) came from a family of pencil makers — in fact, Thoreau and Company was America’s foremost manufacturer — and was an accomplished pencil innovator. He dreamed up a way of injecting the graphite inside a hollowed-out pencil; until he did so, two wooden halves were glued together with the lead inside.

4. So many pencils are yellow because of the Hardtmuth Company, founded in Vienna in 1790 by Josef Hardtmuth to manufacture art supplies. At the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, the company introduced the Koh-i-Noor pencil, named for the huge diamond discovered in the 13th century and presented to Queen Victoria (under duress) by an Indian maharaja in 1850. The new model had a bright yellow casing made of cedar. The yellow branding became known as a mark of quality, so naturally, it was soon adopted by the makers of inferior pencils.

5. The numbering on pencils refers to the hardness and blackness of the graphite they contain. America uses a numerical system ranging from 1 to 4 for grading graphite; it was created by Conté and adopted here by Thoreau’s father. Europe uses a lettered system in which “H” stands for hardness and “B” for blackness. The softer the lead, the easier the pencil is to write with — but it also smears more easily. A number 2 pencil corresponds to the letter grade HB.

6. Back in the day, you had to use a number 2 pencil to take standardized tests because those tests were scored by machines that read them by shining light through the paper. For this to work, the pencil mark had to completely block the light through the answer bubbles, which less-black pencil leads — those numbered 3 or 4 — didn’t do. Number 1 pencils would have worked, but they smeared too easily. Today the answer books are scored by high-tech image sensors and algorithms that read the darkest mark in a set, so theoretically you could fill in every bubble and the scanners would still assign you an answer based on the darkest one.

7. The original pencil sharpener was a knife, duh. In 1828, a French mathematician received a patent for a sharpener that had two metal files embedded in a piece of wood. It wasn’t much better than a knife. But in 1837, two Englishmen began selling a similar “patent pencil pointer” they called the Styloxynon. A decade later, it was back to France for Therry des Estwaux’s “prism sharpener,” which had the conical-shaped grinder you still see today in hand-held models. Mass production eventually led to the crank-turned desktop sharpener you may remember from your school days.

8. When my kids were in school, they were infatuated with mechanical pencils. Every September, we laid in a whole new store of them, which means that today there are little troves of pencil leads in most of the drawers in my house. I hate mechanical pencils; the tips always break off when I use them. This brief history of the mechanical pencil explains that the original pencils were sort of mechanical, since their leads were replaceable; a model with a spring to hold the lead in place existed as early as 1636. But the first patent wasn’t issued until 1822, for a British “ever-pointed” pencil. In 1879 Joseph Hoffman invented the “pushbutton clutch,” which was then incorporated into the Eagle Automatic. Early models were wooden, but today, plastic casings rule.

9. The original erasers were wads of bread. No, really. Wads of bread. Imagine the crumbs all over your desk. In 1770, the British philosopher Joseph Priestley discovered that rubber was “excellently adapted to the purpose of wiping from paper the mark of black lead pencil.” (He also first isolated oxygen, and moved to Pennsylvania after an angry mob destroyed his house in Birmingham.) But it was another Brit, Edward Nairne, who marketed the first rubber eraser. Rubber was originally called “India gum,” but because it worked so well at rubbing out pencil marks, it acquired a new name.

10. In Europe, pencils mostly don’t have erasers, which probably says something about how Americans like to reinvent ourselves and erase the past. Mary Norris, the New Yorker’s famed copy editor, once wrote an essay on erasers. Oh, and by the way, there is such a thing as an electric eraser.

11. And speaking of essays, there’s a famous first-person one, um, penned by a pencil in 1958 and regularly reprinted since. Its full title is “I, Pencil: My Family Tree as Told to Leonard E. Read.” He, Pencil (a.k.a. Mongol 482), was made by the Eberhard Faber Pencil Factory of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. His earliest ancestor was a cedar from the Pacific Northwest.

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