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.

How old is the pencil? © 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.

This article was first published in the March 2016 issue of History Revealed. Answered by one of our Q&A experts, Greg Jenner. For more Q&A’s, pick up a copy of History Revealed! Available in print and for digital devices.