Recently I read somewhere that “NASA spent millions to develop a pen that would write in space, whereas the Soviet cosmonauts used a pencil.” This turns out to be a myth, but it got me thinking about pencils – in particular pencils with a graphite core (commonly known as “lead pencils” (despite the fact there’s no lead in them).
In the trenches of The Somme during the First World War, my great-uncle wrote letters to his loved ones at home using a pencil. To this day, those poignant missives can still be easily read. This indicates that pencils have archival qualities. Presumably he simply sharpened the pencils with a pocket-knife whenever they wore down.
The Reidinger website lists the benefits of pencils:
- pencils are cheap writing utensils.
- there are various hardness degrees for different areas of use.
- you can get pencils nearly everywhere.
- different types and designs are available.
- pencils are easy to handle.
- they write perfectly at any temperature.
- they write in any position or situation (overhead or in space!)
- Made a mistake? No problem – simply erase the wrong parts
- words written with a pencils have a high resistance to light
- a writing length up to 50,000 metres!
- the sound of writing on paper, and the sound of the pencil sharpener that sharpens a blunt pencil
Wikipedia’s article on pencils says, “Pencils create marks by physical abrasion, leaving a trail of solid core material that adheres to a sheet of paper or other surface. They are distinct from pens, which dispense liquid or gel ink onto the marked surface.
“Most pencil cores are made of graphite powder mixed with a clay binder. Graphite pencils (traditionally known as “lead pencils”) produce grey or black marks that are easily erased, but otherwise resistant to moisture, most chemicals, ultraviolet radiation and natural aging. “
I like to carry paper and a writing utensil with me wherever I go, in case inspiration strikes. I’ve given up carrying ballpoint pens. They seem to inconveniently dry up with no explanation. Pencils are more reliable, (unless you drop them and the internal core fractures in a million places along its length, prior to falling out in small, annoying fragments).
These days, we can buy “metal pens”. Wired’s article Neither Pen Nor Pencil: Write Endlessly In Metal explains the principle: ” A tiny amount of metal alloy transfers from the pen to the page. Unlike pencil, it can’t be smudged with your hand, and unlike ink, it doesn’t need to dry. The amount of alloy for each stroke is so tiny that the pens are expected to last a lifetime without needing to be refilled or replaced. You can sharpen the tips for a finer point with a little sandpaper.”
The disadvantages? The alloy in some of these pens contains trace amounts of lead, so it’s not so good for kids, and the thought of lead in my writing is disconcerting.
Metal pens sound ultra-modern, but in fact they were invented hundreds of years ago. The National Galleries of Scotland website explains that they were used in the Middle Ages:
“Metalpoint is a traditional drawing technique in which a thin metal stylus, usually of silver, is used with paper that has been prepared with an abrasive coating traditionally made from powdered bone and gum-water. As the point is drawn along the surface, tiny traces of metal are left behind creating a delicate and very precise line.”
Artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Dürer and Rembrandt all used metal styluses made of lead, tin or silver. The technique is called Silverpoint when the stylus is made of silver, and this was the most favoured metal.
The pencil I’m using right now
I’m currently using a Columbia Copperplate HB pencil to write down ideas. It’s also useful for drawing visual representations of your concepts, and even shading your pictures for a 3D effect.
How pencils are made
Finally, if you’re into watching videos on YouTube, try this one. It’s by Faber-Castell, and it’s called “How We Make Pencils”.