The Humble Pencil

Posted on July 15, 2013

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Is it safer to do your crossword puzzles in pen? Some say yes, if only to avoid lead poisoning. Do pencils really contain toxic lead? Where’d they come from, anyway?

The instrument we know as a pencil was called a stylus back in ancient Rome. At the time of its creation it was, in fact, a thin piece of metal that was used to make marks on papyrus, that fabulous precursor to paper, imported from Egypt.

But when a sizeable graphite mine was discovered in England, lead was phased out. The graphite was darker and more capable of producing an easily readable line than lead. Naturally, there was a catch: the softer, easier-to-use graphite was also very brittle, and hard to handle without breaking. The first solution was to wrap a piece of graphite in string. Soon after that graphite was encased in a wooden shell. Early pencils of this type date back to the 16th century, and the early manufacturers Faber-Castell, Staedtler, and Dixon are still big contemporary contenders. Even author Henry David Thoreau threw his hat into the ring as a pencil maker!

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It wasn’t until late in the 19th century that wooden pencils became the common yellow sticks we conjure up when we think of a pencil. But why yellow? Yellow was used by pencil manufacturers to indicate that they used superior-grade Chinese graphite. Because the color yellow implied royalty in China, it was decided that the pencils with Chinese graphite should be yellow to reflect their higher quality. These days, with the invention of mechanical pencils, multi-color lead pencils, and lead-holders, yellow pencils bring a classic touch to any desk, but they’re not royalty-level fancy by any means.

And what of erasers? Of the 45,000 words a single wooden pencil can write, surely some of them were mistakes. So it should be no surprise that erasers became commonplace by the mid 19th century. Modern day Americans don’t have to look far for their erasers–chances are they’re at the end of their pencils. Most pencils made in, or made for Europe, however, are manufactured sans eraser. Their “rubbers,” as they’re called in England (and we’ll tastefully pass over any jokes one might wish to make about that name) are either held by hand or added to the top of their pencils in cap form.

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Which brings us back to the core of the pencil. Should you or shouldn’t you use it for the crossword? Well, if you’re perfect and don’t make mistakes–you know, like a European with no built-in eraser–go ahead and use pen. Otherwise, use a pencil and don’t worry about health concerns: only graphite lurks underneath that royal yellow wood. Incredibly, centuries later, the pencil’s core is still referred to as the pencil ‘lead.’

Kiped from the archives of the SyFy channel’s IdeaLab Blog for the TV show Eureka. Well kinda kiped, since I wrote it to begin with. Edited by Tiffany Lee Brown, without whom I’d be stuck in the land of curly quotes.

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Posted in: science, writing