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How the pencil was invented

Although we use pencils almost every day of our lives, have you ever really thought about who invented the humble pencil? The first version of the pencil was used thousands of years ago by the ancient Egyptians and Romans. In order to communicate with written text, they used a ‘stylus’ and ‘papyrus’. A ‘stylus’ was a thin metal rod created out of the lead, while ‘papyrus’ is believed to be one of the first forms of paper. Different versions of these objects continued to be used for hundreds of years after their invention.

An important discovery in the 1500s

In the early 1500s, residents of Grey Knotts (England) discovered a large deposit of graphite. This graphite became an early version of the modern-day pencil when the townspeople cut the material and started marking their sheep with it. Everybody thought the graphite was lead, which is why we often hear a connection between lead and pencils today. However, modern pencils do not actually contain any lead. The English government quickly took over the newly discovered mine, because the military knew that graphite made a great liner for cannonball moulds. In order to use the graphite in pencils, labourers smuggled it out of the mine and controlled it for use by wrapping it in string and sheepskin. The first mass-produced pencils were created in Nuremberg in 1662; the pencil industry then became a flourishing part of the industrial revolution in the 1900s.

The origins of the pencil

Simonio and Lyndiana Bernacotti were the first people to invent the pencil as we know it today, with the first version looking something like we would consider to be a traditional carpentry pencil. The Italian couple created the object back in 1560 by carving out the middle part of a piece of juniper wood and inserting a stick of graphite into the hole. This method was later updated when people decided it would be better to glue two wooden halves of the pencil together after placing the graphite in between them. We still use this very simple technique to make pencils today and there is currently no plan in place to alter this.

Pencils through the ages

When people first started going to space in the 1960’s, pencils were used in place of pens. The ink in pens requires gravity for them to work, so American astronauts used regular pencils to make notes, while Soviet astronauts preferred to use grease pencils. The only issue with using pencils was that they made dust which often floated around the cabin. People also worried that the broken end of a pencil could come into contact with sensitive electronics and cause damage to them.

In order to prevent this problem from occurring, Paul C. Fisher founded the Fisher Pen Company and went on to invent the ballpoint pen, otherwise known as the ‘bullet pen’. The design was updated twenty years later in the 1960s, when he added a pressurized cartridge that would enable the pen to function without gravity. The new model worked in a range of different environments, including in space, upside down, underwater and in the most extreme of temperatures. The pen worked without problems at temperatures of anywhere between -50 F and +400 F. NASA decided to test this new type of space pen and eventually bought 400 of them to be used by the Apollo astronauts in 1967. The Soviets followed suit by purchasing 100 space pens two years later. It is widely understood that Fisher space pens are still being used by cosmonauts in orbit today.

A few years after this, a rumour was started that claimed that NASA had spent 10 years and $12 million in an effort to invent the space pen, even though the Soviets continued to opt for cheap pencil. The Fisher Pen Company spoke out and explained that they had actually received no government funding and had spent about $1 million of the company’s money developing the space pen. The initial purchase of 400 pens cost NASA $6 per item, meaning that their total expenditure was $2,400. This sum of money was just a drop in the ocean in the grand scheme of things; $25 million in 1960’s money was spent on the entire Apollo program.

Further development of the pencil

Although many people believed that the computer age would render the pencil obsolete, the experts do not think this will happen – at least in the foreseeable future. Expectations for improvement are that the invention may be refined by being made tougher and more durable. It is also possible that the pencil will be made more aesthetically pleasing, although the basic design will probably remain the same for at least the next 10 years. It is difficult to predict what may lie in store for the humble pencil following that.