Should the National Pencil Day celebration be hip-hip hooray or sharp-sharp hooray?
In the run up to National Stationery week (25 April – 1 May), we thought we’d take a quick peek at the origins of the humble pencil.
The British invented the pencil. Maybe.
There are various tales about the origin of the proto-pencil. Some say that the French invented it. For now, let’s settle on the story that in 1504 in Borrowdale, Cumbria, graphite was found. I believe that, until more sources were discovered, Borrowdale was the only place to get graphite in the world. This video gives a glimpse of how hard it must have been to mine.
Initially farmers and shepherds used the material to mark their flocks, but soon the graphite was sandwiched between bits of wood so people could write easily on paper. (And if you’ve ever tried filing sheep, you’ll understand paper was much preferred by office workers.)
This writing tool became known as a ‘dry pencil’ (before this, the word pencil meant type of artist’s paint brush). For a time it was even called a ‘crayon d’Angleterre’.
While that’s a name that conjures elegance, I’ve seen a picture of an early pencil it resembles a rectangular hotdog squashed into a wooden bun. Honestly, it looks like someone sat on a bag of Maccy D’s after a heavy night.
The UK had the world’s first pencil factory
Fittingly, the first record of a pencil factory comes from Cumbria in 1832. It started life as Banks, Son & Co., but eventually turned into The Cumberland Pencil Company.
This firm went on to become popularly known as Derwent. I bet that name is ringing a few bells, isn’t it? Whenever I visited art shops as a child, I always used to head to the Derwent section without realising why; I suppose it’s because we’ve all grown up associating pencils with a British brand.
(And I’ve just realised that Cumberland sausages must have been named after the early pencils – both are the same sort of shape, right? No, wait. They’re probably called that because they’re from… Cumberland. I’ve actually read that German miners who came to the UK in the 16th Century carried the sausage’s recipe with them. I can think of wurst things to bring. Sorry.)
From sausages to space
Have you heard the story about how NASA spent millions developing a pen that would work in space, only for the Soviets to say it was cheaper and easier to use a pencil? While it’s a lovely story, it isn’t true.
What actually happened is that both Soviet and US spacemen used to use pencils up there. However, they weren’t ideal because bits of wood and graphite could flake or break off and weightless-their-way to an astronaut’s eye or piece of equipment; this is especially problematic because graphite conducts electricity.
(For a time NASA used mechanical pencils. In 1965 they ordered 34 from a company in Houston, paying almost $130 each. To put that into context, the average wage in the US for that year was about $4,650.)
Eventually an inventor decided by himself to come up with a ‘space pen’, reportedly spending a million bucks developing it. After passing NASA tests, these pens were then officially used in space by the Americans and the Soviets. Thankfully both countries qualified for a 40% discount for buying in bulk. Even astronauts have to haggle.
What next for the pencil?
Our humble little pencil has seen a lot of changes over the years, but I think it might have reached peak-pencil. Apex pencil. Apple Pencil.