Happy 100th anniversary, Blackwing clamp!

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Blackwing clamp
First paragraph of US patent 1373062.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of a very important part of the famed Eberhard Faber Blackwing pencil: the patent for the pencil’s distinctive ferrule and eraser, originally called a clamp. (The name changed over time.)

Blackwing clamp

The clamp patent was awarded to Lothar W. Faber on this day one century ago. The mechanism was shared with the Van Dyke and Microtomic pencils, mechanical pencils, and stand alone erasers. The Blackwing itself was launched a decade later. The clamp did have predecessors, but the 1921 patent was the most successful and widely known model.

The Eberhard Faber Pencil Company clearly took pride in the invention, noting the patent date on the box of Item 1281, their four eraser plus one clamp refill kit:
Blackwing clamp

Also on some versions of the clamp itself:
Blackwing clamp
(c) Swann Galleries

For more on the clamp, please see “Clasp to Clamp” at Contrapuntalism and Patent 1373062 at Google Patents.

Pencil news

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Years ago, this blog featured occasional posts with pencil news. I know of a few current events and links that I would like to mention.

Moon Pencil

The founders of Moon Pencil have repurchased the company. The company was sold to toy company MegaBloks, then Mattel. Back in the Rosen family, I hope the owners will consider emphasizing some of their own label pencils, similar to General and Musgrave. The press release notes that they are “America’s largest pencil factory.” pencil talk looked at their product line in 2011.

Kirin Pencil

Known for a very innovative product line, one of Japan’s smaller pencil producers has gone out of business. Following the death of the chairperson, no path forward was found and the company dissolved.

Vodka Soaked Pencils

From the Austrian design school FH Joanneum, we have a 200 page book on red and blue pencils. It is conceptual and exploratory from a design and artistic perspective.

Aztec Scoremaster 101 Pencil

This post at the blog of composer Gavin Bryars is a remarkable companion to the 2017 Contrapuntalism post on the Alpheus Music Writer and the 2020 Blackwing Pages post on Judy Green Music. It is a great read.

Pencil Manufacturers: Many are over one century old

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A remarkable aspect of the pencil industry is the longevity of the manufacturers. In a selective sample of 23 of the largest and best known manufacturers, nine are less than a century old, ten are between one and two centuries old, and four claim over two centuries of existence!

To be clear, here we are accepting general statements from company websites. We know that Dixon didn’t make pencils on day one, that Dixon and Lyra are no longer independent, and that Koh-I-Noor has a discontinuous history that doesn’t cleanly trace back to Hardmuth in 1790. And there are other companies who may also claim a descent from forerunners that could be challenged. Further, some are more brands than manufacturers today.

Yet, it is extremely impressive. Particular congratulations go to Faber-Castell, celebrating their 260th anniversary in 2021!

Company Created Age
Staedtler 1835 186
Faber-Castell 1761 260
Lyra 1806 205
Stabilo 1855 166
Dixon 1795 226
Newell 1856 165
Moon 1961 60
General 1889 132
Musgrave 1916 105
Tombow 1913 108
Mitsubishi 1887 134
Kitaboshi 1951 70
Camel 1939 82
Eyeball 1972 49
Derwent 1832 189
FILA 1920 101
Viarco 1907 104
Koh-I-Noor 1790 221
China First 1935 86
DOMS 1974 47
Camlin 1931 90
Hindustan 1958 83
Maharashtra 1972 48

The Jonas Jones Stop Sliding Pencil

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We’ve seen that there are preserved seventeenth century pencils in museums and collections in Germany and Japan. There is also a very interesting historical pencil in the United States.


© Mariners’ Museum and Park

In the 1740s, a ship (the Princess Carolina (1717)) was sunk in New York City’s East River as infill.

This ship was excavated in 1982, and many of the discovered artifacts found a home at the Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News, Virginia. A curatorial query from the Jamestown Yorktown Foundation in (or around) 2015 led to the discovery of a highly interesting pencil.

Estimates of the pencil’s date have evolved with additional research, though it can’t be precisely dated. The excavation site wasn’t thought to have items newer than 1770, while this pencil earned a London patent in 1783.

As well as being very well preserved, the pencil is remarkable in multiple aspects:

1. It has a ruler imprinted on one side.

2. It has a maker’s name.

3. All wood, it has a sliding section and a stop mechanism for housing and extending a piece of pure graphite. In my view, this makes it jointly a mechanical and woodcase pencil! It is a remarkable (and to my knowledge, not duplicated) early pencil.

Further reading and photos at the Mariners’ Blog:

Do you have an 18th century pencil we can borrow? (March, 2016)
You never know what you’ll find in our collection… (October, 2017)

Was graphite first discovered at the Borrowdale mine?

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“Graphite was first discovered in the 1560s in the Lake District of England” – Pencils You Should Know by Caroline Weaver.

This statement about the discovery of graphite is often repeated, to the point that it seems to be a known historical fact. Let’s take a look.

In Pencil People, Thomas Smith notes that Borrowdale was previously the home of Furness Abbey, and that there are records of the monks using graphite to mark sheep.

In The Pencil, Henry Petroski mentions graphite pieces from circa 1400BC having been found in an Egyptian excavation. This is likely based on work published by Ainsworth Mitchell in a 1917 issue of the journal The Analyst.

Petroski also refers to graphite being known in Europe around 1400. This appears to be based on the 1968 edition of Compton’s Encyclopedia.

The Tokyo Pencil Association notes scientific research that Ieyasu’s pencil came from a 16th century Mexican mine.

The University of Waterloo Geology department mentions that Celts were known to have mined graphite in Cesky Krumlov in 500BC. They used graphite as a ceramic additive.

The British Library noted, “Graphite was first discovered in Europe, in Bavaria at the start of the 15th century; although the Aztecs had used it as a marker several hundred years earlier.”

The Historic England website states: “The working of graphite deposits is thought to have been well established by the mid-13th century in central Europe.”

So was graphite first discovered at the Borrowdale mine? I trust the mentioned academic sources, and have no reason to doubt Smith. The Tokyo Pencil Association refers to academic research (but I’m not aware of a citation). Overall, there are many claims that graphite has been known to various societies through history. Cesky Krumlov is a very well known mine, and Petroski’s citations appear to be traceable to source.

The Borrowdale mine is historically important, and the quality and quantity of pure graphite found were exceptional. It also became an important commercial property and centre of an industry. Yet it is not the first place that people discovered graphite.

The world’s oldest known pencil

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In almost every print and online source I’m aware of, the oldest known woodcase pencil is said to be this one:


© Faber-Castell

It appears to be a partially woodcased carpenter pencil, and is on display at the Faber-Castell headquarters.

Abbey Sy has a photo rich report of a trip to Faber-Castell headquarters. Transcribing the English version of the display plaque shown in a photo, it says:

“Oldest known pencil
“This wood encased graphite pencil from the 17th century was found in the 1960s during restoration work on the beams of a house in Langenburg (Swabia). This pre-industrial pencil, made of lime wood with the methods usual at the time, was very probably used by carpenters in their work. It has been in the Faber-Castell Collection since 1994.”

But there are other known very old pencils. The Japan Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association and the Tokyo Pencil Association Shogokai cite two:

Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) had this pencil, which is said to have been presented by Dutch visitors:


© Tokyo Pencil Association

The pencil is held in the Kunozan Toshogu Museum in Shizuoka Prefecture. Electron microscope analysis reveals the graphite is from 16th century Mexico.

In 1974, it was discovered that Date Masamume (1567-1636) owned a pencil:


© Tokyo Pencil Association

This pencil has just stub of graphite at the tip and an advanced feature – a cap! Found in Masamune’s mausoleum at Zuihoden, it isn’t clear to me if the pencil was reburied.

To summarize, Ieyasu’s pencil is older than the Langenburg pencil, and the Masamune pencil is probably (though not definitively) older than the Langenburg pencil. The better known “oldest known pencil” has company.

The implication that the Spanish empire had 16th century access to a graphite source is also worth further examination by historians.