Who invented the pencil when?

Over the past centuries, several generations of writing tools have changed. Goose feathers were replaced by fountain pens, then ballpoint pens. However, the design of another tool - a pencil - turned out to be so brilliantly simple that it almost without changes came from the Middle Ages to the present day and, possibly, will stretch for more than one century. In ancient times, those who had to take notes used rods of lead or its alloy with tin. This soft metal left a faint, light gray mark on parchment or paper that could be erased with a crumb. They painted both coal and black clay slate, but the convenience of such writing devices left much to be desired.

As often happens, a blind incident led to a revolution in the field of writing instruments. In 1564, in Borrowdale, a city in the English county of Cumbria, a storm knocked down several trees, and local residents drew attention to unusual stones under the roots. They were black, soft and left marks on various surfaces. The glory of the stone, which was called "black lead", or plumbago (lat. "Similar to lead"), soon spread outside the county: the shepherds marked them with sheep, the artists inserted pieces of "lead" into wooden cases and used for drawing and writing. The lead word (lead) is also called pencil lead today, and in Dahl’s dictionary you can see the definition of graphite: “fossil, from which the so-called lead pencil is made” (the Russian word “pencil” comes from the Turkic “kara” - black, “dash " - a rock). The fact that “black lead” is a crystalline type of carbon was discovered by the Swedish chemist Karl Scheele only in 1779, and ten years later, the German geologist Abraham Werner gave him the speaking name graphite - from the Greek γράφω, “I write”.

Over the next two and a half centuries, Borrowdale remained the only source of graphite for pencils in Europe, since the mineral from other deposits was of poor quality. Graphite became a strategic raw material, the British parliament passed a law in 1752, according to which imprisonment or exile was supposed for theft of this material or sale on the black market. Great Britain itself decided to whom this mineral could be sold, and to whom it was forbidden. In particular, the island neighbor decided to leave the newborn Republic of France without pencils, declaring it an economic blockade. It is clear that the French did not like such a monopoly, and one of the prominent figures of the French Revolution Lazar Carnot asked the inventor, scientist and officer Nicolas Jacques Conte to find a way not to depend on the import of this expensive material. Conte solved the problem quite quickly - he took ground graphite (from other deposits) as a basis, mixed it with clay, molded rods from the resulting composition and burned it in an oven. The resulting material was much cheaper, and wrote no worse than the best British natural graphite. Moreover, by varying the content of graphite in the mixture, it was possible to obtain different hardnesses of lead. In 1795, Conte received a patent for his process, and it is in this way (with minor improvements) that pencils are made now.

The article “Strokes on paper” was published in the journal Popular Mechanics (No. 1, January 2012).


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