A concise history of the lead pencil how it evolved from lead to graphite. It's secret use in WW2 and it's links with the Bond movies.
The expression that ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ is true of many everyday articles that we use, but perhaps it is especially true of the lead pencils that are tucked in our pockets and bags, waiting to be sharpened in our desk drawers, lying around on our desks and strewn around the house. However, pencils have an interesting and, at times, surprising history.
The Romans may have been the earliest users of pencils, although it is thought that the Egyptians probably used them before that. Either way someone discovered that a piece of lead could be used to make a legible mark on papyrus. The Roman stylus, a metal rod (usually of lead), has long been replaced, but the memory of the original use of lead remains in the name of its succesor – it is known as a lead pencil. This is now rather a misleading name because there is no lead in a lead pencil.
Somewhere around 1560 graphite was discovered in Borrowdale in England. The story tells of a storm that uprooted a tree and there beneath the roots was a dark mineral deposit, soft enough to write with, but brittle and consequently difficult to use. The local people used it to mark their sheep! They referred to it as ‘ blacklead’ perhaps because it made a darker mark than lead. What they had found was a huge deposit of graphite.
The graphite could be cut into strips but it needed support to stop it from breaking into pieces and to provide some kind of a handle. Initially string or a piece of fleece was wrapped around it. Soon wood became the most practical casing and a groove was introduced to accommodate the graphite. When the graphite was sandwiched between two pieces of wood which were then glued together, something closely resembling our modern pencil had evolved. Germany became the first country to begin marketing pencils in 1662.
In 1795 a French man named Nicholas Jacques Conte experimented by mixing powdered graphite, clay and water together and heating them in a kiln. The result turned the pencil world upside down. The new hardened mix of graphite and clay reduced costs, it also enabled manufacturers to adjust the strength of the graphite by using more or less clay. Now there was a choice between a hard pencil and a soft one. It was the answer to an artist’s dream!
A hundred years later William Monroe, an American inventor, produced a machine that could cut the grooves in the wood used for pencils. Cedar wood is used as the casing for a pencil, Californian Incense cedar being the most popular.
In the early 19th century China produced the best graphite in the world. Pencil makers in America who imported this graphite painted their pencils yellow – a colour indicative of respect to the Chinese and quality pencils to the American market. This accounts for the large number of pencils painted yellow.
The evolutionary route leading to the pencil you have in your hand has been a quite an international one.
During the second World War the managers of a pencil company in Cumberland were enrolled by a British Government official to make very unusual pencils. It was a top secret mission, carried out at night in total secrecy by the managers only. They were provided with maps printed on silk (no crinkle of paper when opened) which were rolled up and placed inside a pencil to replace the lead. They produced a kit of four pencils, all painted green and numbered. Pencil 101 was map of the whole of Germany, 102-104 contained maps of local areas with routes and safe houses marked.
The kits were given to pilots in the Royal Air Force and also unknowingly smuggled into prisoner of war camps by the Red Cross. The secret maps inside the pencils were never discovered by the Germans.
The official who contacted the Cumberland Pencil Company was Charles Fraser-Smith. He invented many gadgets for people working in occupied Europe and is generally believed to have been the inspiration for ‘Q’ in Ian Fleming’s Bond novels.