Pencils: Drawing a line through time

Colourful_pencilsThe earliest precursor to the pencil was the ancient Roman writing instrument called a stylus. Unlike a pencil, the stylus (a thin metal rod) didn’t make a mark on its own, but was pressed against papyrus or wax tablets to leave a readable mark behind.

After the metal stylus, came those made of lead, which were rather like the inside of a modern graphite pencil, and were able to leave marks without the aid of something to imprint upon. The Aztecs are also known to have used lead markers several hundred years earlier.

The word ‘pencil’ comes from the Latin ‘pencillus’, meaning ‘little tail’, to describe the small ink brushes that clerics and clerks used for writing in the Middle Ages.

With the discovery of graphite in Bavaria at the start of the fifteenth century, a new, stronger medium was available to write and draw with. It wasn’t until the discovery of a vast deposit of graphite in Borrowdale, Cumbria, England in 1564 however, that a major change in the development of the pencil began. Now, rather than the softer lead, a stick of graphite could be used to write, leaving a darker and stronger line.

Originally graphite was known as black lead or plumbago. It wasn’t called graphite (from the Greek word ‘graphein’,  meaning ‘to write’) until 1789. These early graphite sticks were wrapped in string or placed into hollowed-out wooden sticks. This more familiar wooden pencil was first mass-produced in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1662.

In 1761 the famous Faber-Castell pencil factory began production, soon followed by the equally renowned Steadtler pencil company, which went from strength to strength throughout the 19th century industrial revolution.

In the UK during the 19th century, the pencil industry was centered round the Keswick area of Cumbria so that the high quality of the local graphite could be exploited. The first factory of the Cumberland Pencil Company opened in 1832.

Even though the mines at Borrowdale ran out of graphite many years ago, and the required graphite is now imported from Sri Lanka, the Cumberland Pencil Company is still making pencils, and has just celebrated its 175th anniversary.

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Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

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