9 Weird Ways Pencils Changed the World

Why pencils are yellow, who drank graphite-infused wine, Hemingway's pointy little secret to great writing, and more.

pencils change the world openeriStock/Scott Kochsiek

On March 30, 1858, inventor Hymen L. Lipman patented the first pencil with a built-in eraser—then sold it for $100,000. Believe it or not, this is not the first time in history that a little stick of graphite has made or broken men’s fortunes. Celebrate the anniversary of the modern pencil with these nine bizarre tales of the world’s favorite writing instrument.

1. Why are pencils yellow? Ask the emperor.

Yellow pencils have been a tradition since the late 1800s, when the best graphite in the world was produced in China. Western pencil tycoons wanted their customers to know their pencils were filled with top-quality lead, so they painted their instruments in the color associated with Chinese royalty: yellow. Remind your children of this regal heritage the next time they’re scribbling dead stick figures all over their math homework.

2. Without pencils, there would be no “rubber”

Before erasers became a stock pencil accessory in 1858, you might not be surprised to see a writer carrying a around a stale baguette with his papers and gear. That’s because breadcrumbs were the writing world’s most popular erasers from 1612 to 1770. The first rubber eraser was allegedly used by accident when a writer was reaching for his crumbs, and instead picked up a hunk of what the French called caoutchouc—a stretchy sample of the newly-discovered Para tree. The substance proved great for rubbing pencil marks off of paper. Since then, we’ve called it rubber.

3. NASA spent thousands developing mechanical pencils—then scrapped them

As school-kids and space-explorers are well aware, pencils amazing for their versatility: They can write underwater, upside down, and even in zero gravity. Despite myths that NASA spent millions developing a space-pen while cosmonauts relied on good old graphite, the agency was quick to tap the pencil’s potential. As Scientific American reports, “NASA ordered 34 mechanical pencils from Houston’s Tycam Engineering Manufacturing, Inc., in 1965. They paid $4,382.50 or $128.89 per pencil.” Following the obvious public outcry—and the Apollo 1 cabin fire of 1967—pencils were forever grounded for being too flammable.

4. Hemingway’s secret to great writing? Use a pencil.

A single pencil is said to hold enough graphite to draw a line 35 miles long, or write 45,000 words. If that’s true, Ernest Hemingway could have written The Old Man And The Sea (27,000 words) in a single stroke—and for all we know, he did. “If you write with a pencil you get three different sights at it to see if the reader is getting what you want him to,” Hemingway wrote in a 1935 Esquire article, “First when you read it over; then when it is typed you get another chance to improve it, and again in the proof. Writing it first in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve it. That is .333 which is a damned good average for a hitter.”

5. There is no lead in pencil lead—but you still shouldn’t drink it

Pencil cores are a mix of graphite and clay, fired in a kiln at more than 800 degrees Celsius. So where does the “lead” come from? Blame a few lost sheep. Legend has it that in 1564 some shepherds from Borrowdale, England were hunting their lost flock through a storm when they stumbled upon a massive deposit of pure graphite under a lighting-scorched tree. Inspectors decided the shiny black crystals must be a rare vein of “plumbago”—Latin for “lead ore”—and an enormous mining industry exploded around the find. Shepherds marked their sheep with the “lead,” housewives rust-proofed their stoves with it, and unfortunate miners drank it with ale and wine as a home remedy (not recommended). And, of course, it made a few people really, really rich.

6. Stealing a pencil could earn you 7 years in prison

The price of England’s rare “plumbago” was originally set around £100 per ton—but after some savvy engineer discovered you could coat cannonballs in it, the price skyrocketed to £5,000 per ton by 1830. Armed guards were stationed outside the Borrowdale mine day and night, and workers forced to strip before heading home lest they steal some valuable graphite flakes in their trousers. A graphite black market emerged, and conmen called stümplers made a killing on fake pencils that were essentially just wooden sticks with blackened tips. The graphite boom got so rowdy that Parliament passed an act to make plumbago-thievery a crime punishable by seven years in a penal colony. (Remember that the next time you “forget” to return a coworker’s Ticonderoga.)

pencils change the worldiStock/Marek Mnich

7. Later, just owning a pencil sharpener could get you arrested

…Or at least hit with a bloody bothersome fine. During WWII, rotary pencil sharpeners were banned in Great Britain because the waste of wood and graphite was considered too excessive. If you had a blunt pencil, you would have had to sharpen it the old-fashioned way: with a knife.

8. Napoleon wanted pencils as much as world domination

When France declared war on basically all of Europe in the 1790s, one unfortunate side effect was the whole country losing access to Borrowdale’s excellent graphite connection. With pencil supplies running scarce in 1795, the French minister of war asked one of his officers—a brilliant young inventor/artist/balloon-pilot named Nicolas-Jacques Conte—to cobble up a substitute. After barely a week, Conte shot back with a kiln-fired cocktail of French graphite powder and clay, inventing the modern pencil-baking system we still use today. One can only imagine the giddy doodles General Napoleon Bonaparte made in his diary that night.

9. Only Americans use #2 pencils (and it’s all Thoreau’s fault)

Before he retreated to Walden Pond, writer Henry David Thoreau worked in his old man’s pencil factory. Among the Thoreau family’s contributions to pencil-craft: a near ecological crisis when the red pine trees famous for that “new pencil smell” proved so popular they became endangered (the Thoreaus later switched to incense cedar and just painted it red.) But more to the point, Thoreau also introduced a new system for measuring the hardness of pencil lead in America, marking them with numbers 1- 4 instead of letters like the rest of the world still does. The #2 pencils every standardized test asks you to use is a medium-thickness option native only to the United States; ask for one in Canada and you’ll likely hear, “You mean an HB, eh?”

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest