September 15, 2022: Keswick, England. Yes, we are in the beautiful English Lakes District, and went to the Pencil Museum. And found a history full of intrigue!
“A pencil is an instrument of mass creation.“
Sometime in the 1500s, a storm uprooted a tree near what is today Keswick, England. Beneath, a shepherd found a grey rock. It would not burn like coal, but marked sheep well. He wrapped it in sheepskin so as to keep his hands clean, and the pencil was created.
That shepherd’s find remains, to this day, the only pure, large scale solid graphite deposit ever found.
At the time, chemical science was primitive, and it was thought (erroneously) that graphite was a form of lead. Though they contain none of the poisonous metal, pencil cores have been called “lead” ever since.
Graphite was found to be valuable not only for writing, but also for cannonball molds. So the British Crown took over the Keswick mine. So valuable was the material that thieves would smuggle it out of the country to sell on the black market. The Crown flooded the mine when not in use, putting an end to that. France, deprived of English graphite during the Napoleonic wars, innovated the modern technique of creating pencil lead by mixing inferior graphite power and clay and firing it in a kiln.
Pencils were still scarce commodities in WWII, when rotary pencil sharpeners were banned in Britain, as they wasted too much material!
Some mistakes can’t be erased
One great advantage to the pencil, of course, is that the marks can be erased. H. L. Lipman first patented the idea of putting the eraser right on the end of a pencil, and sold his patent in 1862. J. Reckendorfer bought it for $100,000, a great deal of money at the time. Reckendorfer sought to enforce the patent in court against other companies that had copied the idea. The supreme court declared the patent invalid. I’ll guess Reckendorfer wishes he could erase that purchase…