The Pencil

When was the ball point pen invented? What about paper clips, or fax machines? Vic Hollefruend, our Retail Furniture Manager, is on the case, researching and compiling everything you would want to know about who, where, why, when, and how of office supplies. We are pleased to present Vic’s History of Office Stuff.

Ancient Writings

“Napoleon, a scientist, smuggling, diamonds, Aztecs, and plumbers” all have a connection to a wonderful little gadget that we tend to take for granted…“the common pencil”. “How do all the aforementioned fit into the pencil’s pedigree?” You ask. Well, we’re about to find out.

When it comes to the modern pencil, we have to zip back in time some 219 years until we meet up with a scientist named Nicholas-Jacques Conte, whose boss was a well-known fella by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte. (See, we’re connecting the dots already). While serving in the army, Conte found that a substance that had been discovered in Bavaria at the beginning of the fifteenth century was ideal for marking and writing. It was called graphite! Interestingly enough, the Aztecs living in what we now call Mexico, had used the same substance as a marker several hundred years earlier. Conte took it a step further. His original process for manufacturing pencils involved roasting a mixture of water, clay and graphite in a kiln at 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit before encasing the resulting “soft solid” in wood.

Originally, the graphite was thought to be a form of lead, so people called it ‘plumbago’ or black lead. (We get the term ‘plumber’ from ‘plumbago’ because plumbers used lead to fix our water-carrying pipes). Not only that, the deception continues each time we refer to pencil ‘leads’. It wasn’t until 1789 that it began to be called graphite. The word came from the Greek word ‘graphein’ meaning ‘to write’.  “Pencil” is actually a much older word. It’s from the Latin ‘pencillus’, which means ‘little tail’ and describes the small ink brushes used for writing in the Middle Ages.

Ok, we have more dots to connect. It seems the purest deposits of lump graphite were discovered in a place called Borrowdale near Keswick [England] in 1564; and this is where smuggling becomes part of the story. Pure graphite spawned not only a smuggling industry but an entire economy associated with it. You see, the value of graphite was soon realized to be enormous, because it could be used to line the molds for cannonballs. (There was suddenly a graphite ‘boom’ ….sorry, I couldn’t resist). The mines were taken over by the Crown and guarded. When sufficient stores of graphite had been accumulated, the mines were flooded to prevent theft until more was required. Any graphite used for pencils had to be smuggled out.

During the nineteenth century a major pencil manufacturing industry developed around Keswick in order to exploit the high quality of its graphite. These pencils were of the highest quality because the graphite used shed no dust and marked the paper very well.

Atomic Structure

Oh yes, seems to me I mentioned something about diamonds too. Well, the strange thing about graphite is that it is a form of pure carbon. It is one of the softest solids known. Also, it’s one of the best lubricants because it’s composed of six carbon atoms that link to form a ring that can slide easily over adjacent rings. However, if the atomic structure of that same graphite is changed, you have another form of pure carbon, a crystalline form called a diamond, one of the hardest substances known.

Ok….we’ve covered Napoleon, the scientist, smuggling, diamonds, the Aztecs, and the plumbers…I guess that about does it, except to say that the hardness or softness of the final pencil ‘lead’ is determined by adjusting the relative mix of clay and graphite when you go to roast it. Commercial pencil manufacturers typically make and market 20 grades of pencil, from the softest, 9B, to the hardest 9H, with the most popular intermediate value, HB, lying midway between H and B. ‘H’ means hard and ‘B’ means black. The higher the B number, the more graphite gets left on the paper. There is also an ‘F’, or Fine point, which is a hard pencil for writing rather than drawing.

Now, let me end with a question. How long a straight line could be drawn with a typical HB pencil before the lead was exhausted? Well, let’s see. The thickness of graphite left on a sheet of paper by a soft 2B pencil is about 20 nanometers and a carbon atom has a diameter of 0.14 nanometers, so the pencil line is only about 143 atoms thick. The pencil lead is about 1 mm in radius and therefore the area is pi r squared or about 9.85 square mm in area. Now, if the length of the pencil is 15 cm…….never mind, my head is vibrating ….Let’s just say I’ve heard it’s about 35 miles or something like that. Who knew?

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