The Stick That Left A Mark

September 24, 2008

Lead pencils have always been made of graphite. There has never been a pinch of lead, or asbestos, in lead pencils – much to the dismay of lawyers everywhere. Graphite has always been non-toxic.

The confusion began with the English, who started using a new mineral called plumbago to write and draw with. In the late 16th century, the residents of Seathwaite in Barrowdale, Cumbria, had stumbled upon a deposit of an intriguing new mineral. The mineral had interesting physical properties – it shimmered, it was solid and black, had a greasy feel and left a mark upon your hands when rubbed. The mineral was so much like the lead ores found at the time that the residents called it plumbago – which is Latin for lead ore, or colloquially, black lead. The locals soon began using the material to mark their sheep, which they had in plenty. Before long, someone found that plumbago also made excellent marks on paper. And because the mineral was so solid and pure, it could be sawed into a stick, wrapped in a bit of sheep skin and carried around. Presumably, among the first uses of this new mobile writing device was to annotate the walls of tavern bathrooms with philosophical commentary.

Creating a proper holder for the plumbago sticks was the logical next step. At first people took to wrapping the sticks in twine. Then someone borrowed a technique already used to make silverpoint styluses, and enclosed the lead with a piece of wood. The convenient little writing sticks in their wood holders came to be known as lead pencils. Their existence was first documented by the zoologist Conrad Gesner in 1565. Eventually, someone realized that easiest way to make a pencil was to place the lead between two pieces of wood and glue the pieces together. Pencils as we know them began to emerge.

Lead pencils were revolutionary and caused a sensation, especially among artists. Unlike pen and ink, the pencils were highly portable. Unlike charcoal, the pencils could be shaped and sharpened to a point, giving the artist the precision of a metal point. And unlike silverpoint, which required specially coated paper, the versatile new pencils worked on just about anything. Better still, artists could use a piece of white bread left over from their lunch to erase their drawings and start over.

England enjoyed a monopoly on pencil manufacture for nearly a hundred years. For no matter how hard they looked, no one could find a second deposit of plumbago that could be cut into sticks and used to make pencils. There was plenty of plumbago to be had, but just not the right sort. Any ore not mined in Barrowdale tended to be impure and the purification process only yielded black lead in fine powder form. To break the English hold, someone had to figure out how to turn the powder into solid plumbago sticks. In 1662, a German pencil maker from Nuremberg finally did. He combined plumbago powder with sulphur and antimony to make pencil lead. The pencil maker’s name was Friedrich Staedtler. If his name sounds familiar, it is because to this day, Staedtler remains a maker of the world’s finest writing instruments. But in 1662, Staedtler’s new pencil lead, though functional, was too coarse and could not match the quality of the original English product. The best pencil lead in the world continued to come from a single mine in Cumbria. Nevertheless, with demand booming, Nuremberg became a major exporter of lead pencils. The city’s atmosphere proved to be specially conducive to pencil making. The famed pencil manufacturer Faber-Castell also got its start in Nuremberg in 1761.

The 18th century was a time of great fundamental discoveries in chemistry. The brilliant Swiss chemist C.W.Scheele, who had a genius for experimentation, had already made several important breakthroughs. In 1779, he turned his attention to plumbago and conclusively proved that black lead wasn’t lead at all. Black lead was in fact carbon. Class action lawyers have hated Scheele ever since. What could have been a landmark lawsuit featuring billions of tiny tots slowly poisoning themselves by sucking on lead pencil tips (you can imagine the television commercials )… turned out to be tiny tots sucking on carbon – the stuff we are made of. Plumbago came to be known as graphite – so named by Abraham Werner, from the Greek graphein, or “write”.

A few years later, the English monopoly on pure high grade graphite ended. In 1790, an Austrian inventor named Joseph Hardtmuth combined graphite powder, clay and water to make – well, spaghetti. He then cooked the graphite spaghetti in an oven until it hardened and he had himself some pencil lead of impeccable quality. Not only was his new lead cheaper, but its hardness and color could also be varied by altering the proportions of graphite and clay. When Hardtmuth wanted a softer pencil, he used more graphite. When he wanted a harder one, he used more clay.

Before Hardtmuth could say voila, the French stumbled upon an identical solution, or possibly appropriated his – no one can know. In 1795, the new French Republic was at odds with the English and the Germans (they took turns being at odds and still are). An economic blockade had cut off all imports of pencils into France. And so Nicolas-Jacques Conté decided to make his own. He used a process virtually identical to that used by the Austrians. His new pencils were square in cross section and encased in a cylinder of wood. He called them crayons. You can still buy Conte’s crayons at an art store or on the Internet.

It was left to two American cabinet makers, William Monroe and Ebenezer Wood, to put on the finishing touches on the modern pencil and automate its manufacture. By 1812, they had turned their home town of Concord, MA, into a hotbed of pencil innovation. It was Ebenezer Wood who made the first hexagonal pencils. He took two hexagonal pieces of grooved cedar wood, placed the pencil lead in between and glued the two pieces together. And he did so using machines. His pencils would not have looked too different from the ones you buy today at Target. By the close of the 19th century, pencils had acquired built in erasers and were mass produced. In the 21st century, they are made in the billions each year – in China, naturally.

The Barrowdale plumbago mine where it all began was closed in the late 19th century. The deposit remains the only known instance of pure graphite ever found in such form!