Did lead pencils exist?

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Lead Pencil, circa 1400© The Trustees of the British Museum, usage via the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license

Did lead (Pb) pencils exist? This notion has been regularly dismissed as a myth.

Two years ago, I saw a display of three lead pencils in a special exhibition at the British Library. They were clearly marked “Lead Pencils” by the curators and dated at approximately the year 1400. No woodcase pencils were displayed.

An important point here is that professional museum curators at a top global institution have deemed these objects (one pictured above) pencils, with no footnotes or asterisks.

The Pencil by Henry Petroski has a chapter, “Before the Pencil”, which details the use of reeds and feathers as early writing and marking tools, as well as the stylus, made of bone, metal, or wood. Some might say these lead pencils are styluses. They no doubt are, but I believe we need to differentiate two categories of stylus.

The first category is a stylus that uses pressure to make a mark: A harder surface makes an impression on a softer surface. So an iron stylus marking a wax tablet would be such an example. (Petroski notes these implements were able to double as weapons, and fulfilled this dual function in Roman times.)

The second type of stylus may have the same appearance, but is functionally different – a stylus of copper, silver, or lead has an intrinsic marking ability, and leaves a mark though the depositing of the element onto paper with contact. This category of writing implement is still made today.

The first type of stylus is definitely not a pencil because it can not leave a dark mark on paper – but how about the second? The photographed lead pencil is in the dimensions of a modern pencil. (Some thin (e.g. 2 or 3 mm diameter) metal silverpoint styluses are not – they are clearly too thin and can not be handheld in the manner of a pencil. They are something other than a pencil.

A very related matter also circles the definition of a pencil – must it be woodcased? Animal skins, string, and paper have been used to wrap graphite cores. A post here on paper wrapped pencils remains very popular, and they are still manufactured. Any many pencil companies make woodless pencils. At this blog, the term “woodcase pencil” has often been used to differentiate from mechanical pencils, but includes more than just the modern glued slat pencil. A working definition of pencils can reasonably include the outliers like extruded pencils, paper wrapper (and recycled paper) pencils, and woodless pencils.

If the definition is focused on a pencil being a handheld round cylinder – then bingo – this is a 620 year old early pencil.

So were there lead pencils? I hope that I’ve supported the notion that the answer isn’t a simple no – it depends on assumptions and definitions. I would love to know if the British Library had any internal discussions about their use of the term.

7 Replies to “Did lead pencils exist?”

  1. Thank you for sharing these exciting details and your thoughts.

    As for the stylus leaving marks, I have only ever heard that it was only used at that time to draw auxiliary lines that then helped to write neatly with the reed pen, for example (which of course does not diminish the importance of this invention). The use of this type of stylus as a writing instrument seems comparatively new to me (or am I missing something?).

    Perhaps one should rather speak of a graphite pencil if one wants to distinguish what is usually called “pencil” from this kind of writing instrument.

  2. Gunther, thank you, I’m glad to learn of your reaction.

    My sole source here is The Pencil. Other research would no doubt be beneficial. Petroski notes lumps of charcoal and lead as being the original and awkward marking objects. They were improved on by reed pens (dating from antiquity) and quill pens (over one thousand years old). Petroski notes how awkward these may have been in practice. In response, the metal stylus and wax tablet arose. Petroski does not state dates, but he does use the sequence of marking lumps, primitive dip pens, stylus and tablet.

    The stylus was metal, and sheets of wax were placed in wood or ivory. Multiple wax tablets assembled looked very much like a modern book. This hard stick marking a softer surface survives to today in slate pencils and tablets, still used in many countries.

    The styluses were made of local materials – tin, copper, lead, silver. It is interesting to note that lead, though dark in appearance, makes a very light mark. This gives insight into how graphite came to be known as “black lead”. Petroski also has a very satisfying explanation of how and why graphite has been called lead – perhaps that could be another blog post.

    In the 12th century in Germany, the monk Theophilius attempted to blend tin and lead to achieve a better marking result. (An interesting predecessor of Conté and Hardmuth.) This was the start of the plummet, which is what I think you are referencing. Plummets are associated with drawing tools like dividers and compasses. This also relates to the development of ruled paper, a very interesting aside.

    Yet another interesting aside is the flattening of one end of the stylus, to support erasing wax marks – a precedent of the eraser tipped pencil, and carrying on to the electronic stylus.

    So I wrote about two categories of stylus – the pressure stylus and the marking stylus. Petroski notes that it was long know that a pressure stylus could also leave a faint mark, and use as a paper marker by writers and artists began around the Middle Ages. The alloys involved were developed, and even paper wrapper versions were created to keep the user’s hand clean.

    Petroski’s claim that the stylus was used as an independent paper writing implement, not just a drafting tool, appears to be draw on a 1919 journal article by Ainsworth Mitchell published in the Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry, “Black-Lead Pencils and Their Pigments in Writing.”

  3. Stephen, thank you for these further details. Yes, I thought of the plummet (however, I didn’t remember that term). The connection to the development of ruled paper is exciting! – I find it amazing that we now have a new combination of writing stylus and pressure stylus, namely the pencil with a stylus tip for touchscreens.

  4. Stephen, this post made me wonder if there has ever been a court case in which the definition of “pencil” was in question — something along the lines of the debates about what constitutes a sandwich. I’m surprised to see that an 1856 legal dictionary has a definition of pencil: “An instrument made of plumbago, black lead, red chalk, or other suitable substance, for writing without ink.” But it makes sense that “pencil” would have a definition. The context that goes with this definition: signing a will.

    If I can get hold of Black’s Law Dictionary in the library, I’ll see if I can learn more.

  5. Michael, you have my imagination running. Erle Stanley Gardner covered quite a lot of terrain, and I’m now wishing he had written The Case of the Lead Pencil.

    Thank you for sharing the definition. I’m curious about what a law dictionary may tell us.

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