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A pencil is a handheld writing instrument used to write letters, words, and numbers and to draw sketches and diagrams[?], usually on paper. It may also have an eraser[?] or "rubber" attached to one end, secured by a ferrule (a metal ring which is crimped to hold the eraser in place): a difference with the pen (either an advantage or a disadvantage) is that erasing is easy.

The prototypical pencil may have been the ancient Roman stylus, which was a thin metal stick used for scratching on papyrus. Some styluses were made of lead. The word pencil comes from the Latin word "penicillus," and means "little tail".

In 1564 on the side Seathwaite Fell[?] near Borrowdale[?], Cumbria, England, an enormous deposit of graphite was discovered. The locals found that it was very useful for marking sheep. This particular deposit of graphite was extremely pure and solid and it could easily be sawn into sticks. Chemistry was in its infancy and the substance was thought to be a form of lead. Consequently it was called plumbago[?] (Latin for acts like lead). This was and remains the only deposit of graphite ever found in this solid form. The value of the material was soon realised to be enormous and the mines were soon taken over by the Crown and guarded. Because the plumbago was softer than lead, it required some form of case. Plumbago sticks were at first wrapped in string or in sheepskin for stability. The news of the usefulness of these early pencils spread far and wide, attracting the attentions of artists all over the known world and it was the Italians that first thought of carving out wooden holders. There deposits of graphite available in other parts of the world, but they were much less pure than the Borrowdale find and had to be crushed and the impurities removed leaving only graphite powder. No other deposit of graphite in this pure form was available anywhere, so until a method of reconstituting the graphite powder was found, England continued to enjoy a monopoly on the production of pencils. The distinctively square English pencils continued to be made with sticks cut from natural graphite into the 1860s.

The first attempt to manufacture graphite sticks (from powdered graphite), was in Nuremberg, Germany in 1662. They used a mixture of graphite, sulphur and antimony. Though usable they were inferior to the English pencils.

English and German pencils were not available to the French during the Napoleonic wars. It took efforts of an officer in Napoleon’s army to change this. In 1795 Nicholas Jacques Conté[?] discovered a method mixing powdered graphite with clay and forming the mixture into rods which were then fired in a kiln. By varying the ratio of graphite to clay, the hardness of the graphite rod could also be varied (the more clay, the harder the pencil, and the lighter the color of the mark). This method of manufacture remains the one in use today.

Many pencils, particularly those used by artists, are labelled on the European system using a scale from "H" (for hardness) to "B" (for blackness), as well as "F" (for fine point). The standard writing pencil is "HB." However, artist's pencils can vary widely in order to provide a range of marks for different visual effects on the page. A set of art pencils ranging from a very hard, light-marking pencil to a very soft, black-marking pencil usually range from hardest to softest as follows:

 9H 8H 7H 6H 5H 4H 3H 2H H F HB B 2B 3B 4B 5B 6B 7B 8B 9B 

The American system, using numbers only, developed simultaneously with the following approximate equivalents to the European system.

 #1  = B
 #2  = HB -- most common
 #2˝ = F -- also seen as 2-4/8, 2.5, 2 5/10 due to patent issues
 #3 = H
 #4 = 2H

Aside from the above range from the lightest of grey to the darkest of blacks, coloured pencils (also called "pencil crayons") are also available. These are versatile, and can be used for tasks as varied as colouring in a child's colouring book or creating life-like renderings.

The graphite core wears down as it is written with (it is literally left behind on the paper), and the wooden or plastic sheath must be sharpened away to reveal more of the core. This can be done with a pocket-knife or special "pencil sharpener[?]." These can be as simple as a small blade encased in a square of metal, or as elaborate as electronic, pressure sensitive, "automatic sharpeners."

In the art world, the pencil has traditionally been seen as an instrument for impromptu sketching to remember a composition for later, or as a way to mark lightly and map out a drawing before commencing the "real" art (usually painting). However, it is safe to say that the pencil has come to be viewed as an art medium in its own right

A "mechanical pencil" is one in which the graphite core can be refilled over and over, by inserting it into the removable cap and clicking the mechanism to feed out the desired amount of graphite as it wears down. These were widely used in the Victorian era, when pencil casings were often made of precious metal, and intricately carved.

Hyman L. Lipman[?] of Philadelphia patented a pencil with an attached eraser on March 30, 1858.

See also

External Link

  • See The Pencil Pages (http://www.pencilpages.com/) for history, numbering systems and other pencil information

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