Do Pencils Contain Lead? Did They Ever?


Do Pencils Contain Lead? Did They Ever?

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When people talk about pencils they will often call them a “lead pencil” but less is bad for your health, right? So do actual pencils that children use every day at school have lead in them? 

Pencils do not actually contain lead and the inside of them is graphite. This graphite core is what allows you to write with the pencil. 

The “pencil lead” is actually graphite mixed with clay so there is nothing to worry about in regards to lead poisoning or anything like that with pencils. 

Now that might be true today but what about in the past? Did pencils ever contain lead? Afterall the name had to come from somewhere right? 

Surprisingly pencils never contained any lead at any time during history. Being that we often refer to the inside of the pencil as its “lead” that surprises a lot of people but it’s true. 

There has never been a single discovery of a pencil actually containing lead! 

To see the most popular pencils just click here. 

What Other Materials Have Been Used In Pencils?

The first attempt to manufacture graphite sticks from powdered graphite was in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1662. It used a mixture of graphite, sulphur, and antimony.

English and German pencils were not available to the French during the Napoleonic Wars; France, under naval blockade imposed by Great Britain, was unable to import the pure graphite sticks from the British Grey Knotts mines, the only known source in the world. 

France was also unable to import the inferior German graphite pencil substitute. It took the efforts of an officer in Napoleon’s army to change this. 

In 1795, Nicolas-Jacques Conté discovered a method of mixing powdered graphite with clay and forming the mixture into rods that were then fired in a kiln. By varying the ratio of graphite to clay, the hardness of the graphite rod could also be varied. This method of manufacture, which had been earlier discovered by the Austrian Joseph Hardtmuth, the founder of the Koh-I-Noor in 1790, remains in use. 

In 1802, the production of graphite centers for pencils from graphite and clay was patented by the Koh-I-Noor company in Vienna.

In England, pencils continued to be made from whole sawn graphite. Henry Bessemer’s first successful invention in 1838 was a method of compressing graphite powder into solid graphite thus allowing the waste from sawing to be reused.

In the early days, American colonists imported pencils from Europe until after the American Revolution. Benjamin Franklin advertised pencils for sale in his Pennsylvania Gazette in 1729, and George Washington used a three-inch pencil when he surveyed the Ohio Country in 1762.

It is said that William Munroe, a cabinetmaker in Concord, Massachusetts, made the first American wood pencils in 1812. This was not the only pencil making occurring in Concord. 

According to Henry Petroski, transcendentalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau discovered how to make a good pencil out of inferior graphite using clay as the binder. This invention was prompted by his father’s pencil factory in Concord, which employed graphite found in New Hampshire in 1821 by Charles Dunbar.

Where Did Pencils Originate? 

A pencil is a writing or drawing implement with a solid pigment core encased in a sleeve, barrel, or shaft that prevents breaking the core or marking a user’s hand. Pencils create marks by physical abrasion, leaving a trail of solid core material that adheres to a sheet of paper or other surface.

Pencil, from Old French pincel, from Latin penicillus a “little tail” originally referred to an artist’s fine brush of camel hair, also used for writing before modern lead or chalk pencils.

Though the archetypal pencil was an artist’s brush, the stylus, a thin metal stick used for scratching in papyrus or wax tablets, was used extensively by the Romans and for palm leaf manuscripts.

For tens of thousands of years, our ancestors drew on cave walls with burnt coals or sticks. Some 3,500 years ago in Egypt, the technology had advanced from burnt sticks to a thin paint brush. The brush gave a fine wet dark line. A fine line is good, but wet is messy.

About 2,000 years ago, the Greeks and the Romans realised that a sharpened lump of lead would mark papyrus with a dry light line. A dry line is good, but light is hard to see.

The modern pencil makes a line that is very useful because it is both dry (so it does not run) and dark (so it is easy to see). The modern “lead-free” “pencil” first appeared in the 1500s. 

As a technique for drawing, the closest predecessor to the pencil was silverpoint or leadpoint pieces until 1565 (some sources say as early as 1500). At that time a large deposit of graphite was discovered on the approach to Grey Knotts from the hamlet of Seathwaite in Borrowdale parish, Cumbria, England. 

This particular deposit of graphite was extremely pure and solid, and it could easily be sawn into sticks. It remains the only large-scale deposit of graphite ever found in this solid form. 

Chemistry was in its infancy and the substance was thought to be a form of lead. Consequently, it was called plumbago (Latin for “lead ore”). 

Because the pencil core is still referred to as “lead”, or “a lead”, many people have the misconception that the graphite in the pencil is lead, and the black core of pencils is still referred to as lead, even though modern day pencils never contained the element lead. 

The words for pencil in German, Irish, Arabic and some other languages literally mean lead pen.

The value of graphite would soon be realised to be enormous, mainly because it could be used to line the molds for cannonballs. The mines were eventually taken over by the Crown and were guarded. 

When sufficient stores of graphite had been accumulated, the mines would be flooded to prevent theft until more was required. The usefulness of graphite for pencils was discovered, but at that point the graphite for pencils had to be smuggled.

Because graphite is soft, it requires some form of encasement. Graphite sticks were initially wrapped in string or sheepskin for stability. 

England would enjoy a monopoly on the production of pencils until a method of reconstituting the graphite powder was found in 1662 in Italy. However, the distinctively square English pencils continued to be made with sticks cut from natural graphite into the 1860s. 

The town of Keswick, near the original findings of block graphite, still manufactures pencils, the factory also being the location of the Derwent Pencil Museum. 

The meaning of “graphite writing implement” apparently evolved late in the 16th century. 

Around 1560, an Italian couple named Simonio and Lyndiana Bernacotti made what are most likely the first blueprints for the modern, wood-encased carpentry pencil. Their version was a flat, oval, more compact type of pencil. Their concept involved the hollowing out of a stick of juniper wood.

Shortly thereafter, a superior technique was discovered: two wooden halves were carved, a graphite stick inserted, and the halves then glued together. This is essentially the same method in use to this day.

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