- VIDEO: Check out the video of the amazing pencil factory.
- PASSAGE: Learn why we call pencils “lead” when they are actually graphite.
- DATA: Learn a lot of weird trivia about pencils.
- YOUR TURN: Complete a cool homework assignment on everything you’ve learned.
Sometime between 1500 and 1565 in Borrowdale, England, graphite– a form of carbon– was discovered. This was the first time that high-quality, solid graphite had been found. (At least, the first time it had been found in recorded history.)
The people of Borrowdale would saw sticks of the stuff and use it to mark their sheep. When metallurgists (a fancy word for a metal expert) came to look at this crazy new stuff, they thought it was some kind of black lead. Because they were convinced it was lead, they called it “plumbago,” which came from the Latin word for lead: “plumbum”.
Even though the graphite was fantastic for writing, the sticks of pure graphite the locals would carve off to mark with were very fragile. They had to be wrapped up or embedded in something or they would soon break.
People started inserting the graphite sticks into all kinds of things, but the most successful idea was putting it into a fatter wood stick with a hole in the center.
Putting bits of carbon into bits of wood became a booming business, and that is the story of the humble beginnings of the mighty pencil industry. The very first pencil manufacturer was founded in Keswick, England, very close to Borrowdale’s graphite mine.
The misnomer, calling pencils “lead” instead of graphite, remains with us to this day, and it isn’t just a quirk of English. In German, “pencil” is “bleistifit,” which translates as “lead stick.”
Here are the most popular pencil colors in various countries:
United States Yellow
Australia Red, with black bands on the end
India Red, with black bands on the end
How much can you write with a pencil? More or less, you can sharpen a pencil about 17 times, write 45,000 words and draw a line over 33 miles long! Whoa.
How many trees does it take to make a million pencils? You’ll need between 5 to 10 trees to make a million pencils. (It depends on the size of the tree.)
Initially, people used stale bread to erase mistakes. Rubber erasers were invented later, and maker a pencil with an attached eraser was patented in 1858 by Mr. Hymen Lipman.
Check out the actual patent drawing and application. Old Hymen ended up selling the patent for a cool hundred thousand bucks. Even though he got to keep the money, the U.S. Supreme Court later ruled that the patent was unenforceable because– duh– it was two known things with no new use.
Pencils can write underwater. Cool!
OK, weird vocabulary that you can probably stump your own teachers with: do you know the name of that weird little crimped band of metal that connects the pencil stick to the eraser? It’s called a “ferrule”. It’s pronounced exactly like “feral” which makes the word a homonym.
Quite a few really famous people have a pencil connection:
Thomas Edison used a thicker pencil that he had custom made to his specifications.
Hemingway did all of his first drafts in pencil, and even touted the greatness of the pencil in an interview published in Esquire magazine in 1935.
John Steinbeck is another famous writer who liked to write it all out in pencil.
Ray Bradbury, author of the amazing Fahrenheit -451, a book about burning books, named a character Faber, which happens to be the name of the world’s largest pencil manufacturer (and the source of the video you just watched). Bradbury, in the book’s afterword, acknowledges that the character and the pencil maker have the same name, and says it was an unconscious choice. (He named another character Montag, after a paper company.)
Henry David Thoreau may not have had much company while he isolated himself on Walden Pond writing masterpieces that still inspire today, but no doubt he had plenty of pencils. Henry’s dad owned a pencil factory, and before he moved out to the woods, he spent a good part of his youth working there. Some historians even claim we should give old Henry credit for inventing the naming system we use for pencil in the United States. So next time you are taking a standardized test with a number two pencil, you can thank the famous philosopher.
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Did you like seeing the patent application for eraser-topped pencils?. Here’s a lesson on patents.
Not sure what the word homonym meant in this lesson? Here is a lesson on homonyms.
Feeling inspired, and 48 colors just isn’t enough. The largest collection of colored pencils you can buy is the Feilisimo Japan 500. Definitely fun! Check it out.
Slider #2 with a grade level difficulty (this lesson is just right for grades…