I think the old maxim, “The Pen is mightier than the sword” is in need of correction. It should read, “The Pencil is mightier than the sword.”
I have a fair amount of pens. There’s even an expensive fountain pen within reach on my desk. However, sometimes, when I need to write a quick note or reminder on a Post It Note, I sometimes can’t find a working pen. Even the expensive pen gets stubborn. I eventually grab one of my pencils and jot my reminder before I forget to do so.
I keep a small pad of paper and a pencil in the car, in case I need to remember something or leave a quick note for somebody. This is because electronics sometimes fail. The pencil will always work, regardless of how many years it’s been sitting in the glove compartment.
There’s also the anecdote about pens versus pencils in Outer Space. The story goes something like this: In the 1960s NASA wanted a ballpoint pen that would write in the weightlessness of space. After much research and development, the “Space Pen” accompanied the astronauts. Meantime, the Soviets and the cosmonauts solved the same problem by using a pencil.
Certainly, there is some truth to the story, but the anecdote leaves out the problems associated with pencils and particles in the clean environment of a space capsule and other factors about the true story of the “Space Pen”. Because the tale contains a grain of truth, we find it cynically amusing.
We have to go back through the mists of time and other anecdotes to find out about pencils. Many historians say that the first form of non-ink or non-paint writing tool was the Roman stylus. A soft, thin metal rod left a light mark on papyrus. Later, Romans utilized lead, which leaves a somewhat darker image. This is why we sometimes call modern pencils by the nickname “lead pencils”, even though they don’t contain lead.
The modern pencil allegedly began around 1564 CE. In the aftermath cleanup of a severe storm, some shepherds near Borrowdale, England found a deposit of a black substance near some fallen trees. They thought it was coal, but soon discovered it didn’t burn. The shepherds noticed that it rubbed off onto their hands, so they used it to mark their sheep. The substance turned out to be graphite.
When people attempted to write onto paper with it, the graphite’s soft, brittle properties made it difficult to handle effectively. To reinforce the graphite some people wrapped it in several layers of string. Other people hollowed out thin, wooden sticks to hold the graphite.
The first mass-produced pencils were made in Nuremberg, Germany. In fact, a healthy cottage industry of pencil-making thrived in that area beginning around 1662. It is in this vicinity that Faber-Castell was established a century later. Serious pencil manufacturing was spurred on by the start of the industrial revolution.
The next important development came about with Nicholas-Jacques Conte’s invented process for blended graphite in 1795. Conte pulverized graphite into a fine powder. He then mixed this powder with clay. He formed the clay into sheets then fired it in a kiln. Afterwards, strips of the fired mixture were sliced, then placed into wooden tubes. The darkness or hardness of the graphite material depended on how much graphite powder was used in the clay mixture. This is the same formula that is used in modern pencils.
The ubiquitous contemporary pencils with erasers attached to one end were first manufactured by the Joseph Dixon Crucible Company beginning in the mid 1870s.
Why are so many pencils painted yellow? There are a few anecdotes about this aspect, too. One story claims the best graphite came from China and yellow is the color of royalty in traditional Chinese society. A varient of the story says that the best graphite deposits were in Siberia, which is close to the orient and yellow is an esteemed color of that region, too. Other sources point to the Austro-Hungarian yellow flag as the true inspiration for the yellow color of germanic pencils.
How come so many pencils have an hexagonal cross-section? This is to inhibit pencils from easily rolling away from the table to the floor. Engineers and carpenters use pencils with rectangular or oval cross-sections that perform this function better.
So, that is the long and the short of pencils, (depending upon how much is left after repeatedly sharpening them). I have a green #3 Eberhard-Faber pencil ready to use today until I finally clean the fountain pen.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes British inventor, designer, and founder of the Dyson Company, James Dyson. “The computer dictates how you do something; whereas with a pencil, you’re totally free.”