Grab a pencil … write, draw and play! | Sunday Observer

Grab a pencil … write, draw and play!

The pencil is a writing object made of wood or metal which has a stick of some soft material inside that leaves marks on paper. Pencils are found everywhere and nobody takes any notice of them. However, the innocent-looking pencil has a checkered history.

The origin of the word ‘pencil’ is somewhat fascinating. The Latin word ‘penis’ originally meant ‘a tail’. Some animals’ tails have a little tuft on the end, like a brush and the diminutive form ‘pencillium’ (literally meaning ‘little tail’) came to be used for ‘a paintbrush.’ It wasn’t until the 17th century that ‘pencil’ took on its modern meaning.

Despite technological advances, the pencil still remains one of the most popular tools for ephemeral writing. It is more useful than some of the traditional writing instruments, such as, the pen. Pencil marks, unlike those made by pens that use ink, can be easily erased. Although they are commonly called ‘lead pencils,’ they do not contain any lead, but a mixture of graphite and clay. In 1795, scientists found a method of mixing powdered graphite with clay, cutting the resultant mixture into thin strips and baking it. The hardness of the ‘lead crayons’ depended on the proportion of graphite to clay. When you added more graphite the pencil became softer, but the colour was dark. In 1812, William Monroe invented a process by which the graphite and clay mixture could be put between two pieces of cedar wood. Even today, the same process continues.


The pencil lead classification uses ‘black’ abbreviated to ‘B’ to indicate softness in quality and darkness in use, and ‘hard’ abbreviated to ‘H’ to indicate durability in quality and faintness in use. For instance, ‘9H’ is extremely hard and faint. ‘HH’ or ‘2H’ is very hard. ‘H’ is hard. ‘HB’ is hard black. ‘B’ is black. ‘BB’ or ‘2B’ is very black. ‘9B’ is extremely soft and dark.

The mechanical pencil appeared in 1877. It consisted of a cylindrical piece of pencil lead inserted into a metal or plastic barrel against a movable rod that can be adjusted by a screwing motion to expose part of the lead. In 1976, the mechanical pen was modified to produce a mechanical drafting pen. It can hold up to 12 lead feeds the lead from the barrel through a fine metal tube by means of gravity. The lead is held in place by a spring activated clamp around the lead. It was originally produced for engineers, drafters, and artists. However, even ordinary people use it today.

Price tags

‘To blue pencil’ is a phrase popularized by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) wartime radio series ‘Garrison Theatre’ (first broadcast in 1939). Jack Warner as ‘Private Warner’ helped further popularize this well-established synonym for censorship. In reading out blue-pencilled letters from his brother at the front he would subdue expletives in the form ‘not blue pencil likely!’

At the beginning, pencils were used in commerce to write price tags for goods put on sale. Thereafter, the legal profession took over to write contracts and other documents. After some time, pencils were in demand by the academic community of universities. There was a debate about the pencil’s importance. People used to say, “Just because they have a pencil doesn’t mean a lot of education is going on.”

A turning point came for the pencil during the 14th Convention of Deans, Scholars and Scribes held in 1248. Dean Nicolo of Padua removed a pencil from his cloak during a feast and used it to record the address of Claude of Navarre. The event is reported to have brought a lot of business to Padua.

When the pencil became a popular writing instrument among schoolchildren, the University of Wittenberg conducted a research to study the effect of pencil ownership on education. It was found that students who owned pencils were better at computing than those who did not have pencils.

Some schools started giving personal pencils to bright students. The pencil-literate students could note down important facts while listening to a lecture or a story. Those who did so fared well in memory tests. In fact, the Lisbon Chamber of Commerce helped several universities to put up special pencil work stations.

With the expansion of the markets pencil manufacturing companies multiplied. For the first time, pencils came out of factories with a rubber pellet ushering in the correctable pencil. Gradually, colour pencils appeared in the market. Certain professions such as accountants started using red pencils and supervisors in government and private sectors preferred to use blue pencils. Soon pencils were marketed in attractive cases.

While pencils were becoming popular in schools something unexpected happened. Some schoolchildren started using pencils for various games. It was feared that students who were doodling with pencils would not do well in studies. Meanwhile, orators, storytellers and town-criers did not take kindly to pencils. They were hurt financially because the oral tradition was coming to an end.


Despite such protests from certain quarters, the pencil industry flourished. Pencils came to be used widely to write shopping lists, and taking down notes. Newspapers also advertised that people can learn mathematics, literature, foreign languages and even art with a pencil.

In the modern world, the pencil is the cheapest, portable, correctable and user-friendly technological marvel that has lasted a few centuries bringing with it sweeping and irreversible social changes. When the pencil was invented it led to a mini-revolution among the writing instruments.

Originally, pencils were thick and blunt and nobody thought they would last long. It took a few more decades for user-friendly slim-looking pencils to appear in classrooms, offices and homes. Although cheap ballpoint pens are everywhere, a child or even a humble carpenter would ask for a pencil to do their work efficiently!

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