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The Pencil Museum July 3, 2009

Posted by Jenny in hiking, history, memoir, travel.
Tags: , , , , , ,
The first pencils were made with graphite from these slopes

The first pencils were made with graphite from the slopes of Grey Knotts

I described in my last post how I walked from Grasmere to Rosthwaite, climbed Scafell Pike (England’s high point), and then walked over the Cat Bells to Derwent Water, where I took the boat to Keswick.  The next day I visited the Pencil Museum.

Barbara Bennett 2I credit my appreciation of pencils to my mother, who always—and I mean always—kept a batch of freshly sharpened pencils on her desk.  She wrote all of her school notes, her grocery and “to do” lists, and her poems, in pencil.  The metal pencil sharpener bolted to her desk was faithfully emptied of its crisp aromatic shavings, and her supply of plump, clean erasers never failed.

The pencil was invented in the Cumbrian Mountains.  At the headwaters of New House Gill, on the eastern slope of Grey Knotts (2287′), just down the Borrowdale valley from Scafell Pike, wandering shepherds in the early 1500s discovered a deposit of graphite.  Legend has it (legend is so possessive) that a violent thunderstorm toppled some trees and exposed a mysterious black material that the shepherds found useful for marking their sheep.  The shepherds thought at first it might be coal, but it didn’t burn.  They did not realize that they had found an exceptionally pure and valuable form of carbon.

It actually was coal, what is sometimes called meta-anthracite, which is harder and higher in percentage of pure carbon than anthracite.  It is lacking in the volatile (gas) content that makes coal burn.  The coal food-chain goes: meta-anthracite, anthracite, bituminous, subbituminous, lignite, peat.  Anthracite can be hard to burn too, as well as low-volatile bituminous coals that sometimes cause “flame-out” in boilers.  (There—my experience writing about international coal markets is coming in handy.  Just ask me about thin-seam mid-vol metallurgical coal.)

The Cumberland graphite, also called “wad,” was found useful for lining casting molds for cannon and musket balls.  And around 1560, someone wrapped a thin cylinder of graphite in string and used it for writing.  And so

Assembling pencils in Keswick

Assembling pencils in Keswick (photo source: Cumberland Pencil Museum)

the pencil was born.    Borrowdale graphite mines continued to operate until 1890, when they closed due to high production costs and overseas competition, even though the overseas product was sadly inferior.  People had also discovered that clay could be mixed with the graphite for making pencils, or that other materials altogether could be used.

The graphite mines were dangerous and difficult for working.  Heavy lumps of it would be sent racing to the bottom of the hill on rickety tracks, with someone riding along the top of the graphite.  But it was valuable.  Cumberland graphite was said to be used in the late 1500s by the school of art that Michelangelo founded, and graphite’s use in the manufacture of ammunition caused its value to soar during the Napoleonic wars.  Thieves burrowed stealthily into the mines and extracted the material by night.  One smuggler pretended to be digging a copper mine while tunneling down into his neighbor’s wad mine.  For more information about these nefarious activities, visit the Lakestay website.

Henry David Thoreau, 1856

Henry David Thoreau, 1856

In the early 1800s, deposits of graphite were discovered in New England.  Henry David Thoreau worked for a time in his uncle’s pencil factory.  The New Hampshire graphite at Thoreau’s factory had to be mixed with large amounts of clay.

Pencil production in Keswick is now limited to high-quality artist’s color pencils under the “Derwent” name (no graphite involved).  The Pencil Museum gives a good historical introduction to this humble but important implement.  It is well worth visiting.  You can see what the museum boasts is the world’s longest pencil (26 feet).  I see from a little googling, though, that this claim is disputed by various pencil enthusiasts.

The pride of Keswick

The pride of Keswick (photo source: Cumberland Pencil Museum)

I particularly like how the museum describes Keswick as the “home” of the first pencil, suggesting the pencil’s possible need for domestic comfort.  The museum is located at Southey Works, Keswick, Cumbria CA12 5NG, tel. 44 17687 73626.

I spent several hours at the museum before it was time to catch the bus to Penrith, a larger town to the east located on the main rail line.  The next day, I took the train back to the south of England.

I looked forward to telling my mother about it.  She would enjoy hearing about the graphite mines, the historical development of the pencil, and how NASA spent enormous sums trying to develop a ballpoint pen that would write in zero-gravity conditions, while the Soviets sent their astronauts into orbit carrying pencils.

Borrowdale valley

Borrowdale valley


1. Roon - July 7, 2009

Your interesting description of the Pencil Museum made me look up the subject in Wikipedia, which confirms that Borrowdale supplied the ore for the first graphite pencils. However, the history of the pencil apparently goes back 5,000 years to the Egyptians, who are said to have made styluses from hollow papyrus stems or bamboo filled with molten lead. Pliny records that pure lead styluses (lat. stilus plombeus) were widely used in ancient times. From the 12th century onwards, many artists (Dürer, Holbein etc.) used styluses made of lead alloys with soldered-on silver tips for preparatory sketches. Though Wikipedia dates the discovery of the Borrowdale graphite deposits between 1658 and 1664, so-called “English antimony” (graphite) pencils were already being used on the continent in the previous century, e.g. by the German natural scientist Conrad Gessner (1516-1566). Graphite was then thought to be a form of lead ore, hence the misnomer “lead pencil”. It was German-Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele who, in 1789, proved that it was a carbonic mineral. He named it “graphite” (from the Greek “graffein”, or writing.) Outside England, pure Borrowdale graphite was often in short supply and therefore very costly because it was chiefly used for military purposes, e.g. in casting cannon balls, and the English frequently restricted exports. In 1790, Viennese researcher Joseph Hardtmuth discovered the process of mixing pulverized graphite with clay, which not only “stretched” available supplies but also allowed manufacturers to determine the hardness of the mixture by the amount of clay added. And in 1795, Frenchman Nicholas Jacques-Conté discovered how to utilise impure German and Austrian graphite deposits by pulverising the ore and washing the pure graphite out of it. By the mid-19th century, the Hardtmuth and Conté processes allowed continental pencil manufacturers like Staedtler, Faber-Castell, Lyra and Schwan-Stabilo to compete on terms of equal quality with English rivals.

2. Jenny - July 7, 2009

History always seems to widen out under one’s very eyes and provide more antecedents, more context, than expected. So I’m not all that surprised to find out that the pencil was actually invented 5000 years earlier. But, in my opinion, the graphite is important. What writing material could possibly be superior to this lode of pure carbon discovered under a bush on the slope of a rugged (albeit small) mountain? Now, that is what pencils should really be made of!

3. Mary Lamb: Tragic Heroine - March 23, 2016

[…] is a lead-pencil factory at Keswick, established in the year Eighteen Hundred. Pencils are made there today exactly as they […]

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