How old is the pencil?

In the 16th-century, there was a ground-breaking discovery of a large source of pure and solid graphite in Cumbria.

This article was first published in the March 2016 issue of History Revealed

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How old is the pencil?
Pencils are still made in Cumbria today. (Mike Slaughter/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The dark and crumbly new resource was initially mistaken for lead – it was named plumbago (meaning ‘lead ore’ in Latin) – but people quickly realised it produced a darker dye.

The invention of the pencil soon followed in the 1560s.

The soft nature of graphite, however, meant that the initial writing sticks snapped too easily, so they had to be wrapped in string or wool to keep them in one piece.

This idea was developed into a new technique where the graphite could be encased in two strips of juniper wood glued together.

We know the Swiss naturalist Konrad Gesner observed such a wooden pencil, and the device was immediately adopted by European artists.

Indeed, it’s due to their influence that its name stuck – pincel was the French word for a tiny single-hair paintbrush used for delicate detailing.

Answered by one of our Q&A experts, Greg Jenner. For more fascinating questions by Greg, and the rest of our panel, pick up a copy of History Revealed! Available in print and for digital devices.

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