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History of the Simplest Writing Tools: Pencil and Paper

pencil and a sharpenerPencil and paper may not look too impressive today, when we have all kinds of fancy electronic devices that replace them and make the process of writing so much easier. They are so habitual and inconspicuous, so mundane that one hardly ever thinks of them twice.

Yet these two seemingly simplistic writing implements have a long history behind them, and at one time both of them were revolutionary, world-changing inventions.

Modern pencil descends from the stylus used by the ancient Romans – it was a thin metal stick with a sharpened end – not unlike modern styli used to work with mobile devices. Stylus was used for scratching on papyrus – direct predecessor of modern paper – or wax tablets. Of course, such a method of writing was hardly effective – texts written in this fashion were hard to read and easily erasable.

A bit later somebody thought about making styli out of lead – these left more visible traces on papyrus, but had an unfortunate side effect – lead is toxic, and prolonged usage of such styli led to very unpleasant health issues.

The history of the pencil in modern sense of the word begins in the middle of 16th century, when a very large deposit of graphite was discovered in Borrowdale, England. It was unusually pure and solid – so much that it could have been easily sawn into sticks. To understand how lucky this discovery was one may note that by this day it remains the only non-negligible deposit of solid graphite to be found.

Graphite is brittle, so some sort of encasing was in order – initially graphite sticks were wrapped in sheepskin or string, and only much later somebody found a way to put them into hollowed-out pieces of wood. However, the production of pencils from natural graphite was an arduous and not very efficient task – as a result they weren’t mass produced until 1662, when Germans found a way or reconstituting graphite powder. Since then the pencil survived, almost unchanged, until the present day.

The history of paper begins in ancient China during the reign of Han dynasty in the first or second century BC. Other paper-like materials, like papyrus, were in use much earlier, but they were made out of expensive raw materials and required a long and tiresome processing, making them unviable in most cases.

Paper, being made out of wood, has enough raw materials for its production virtually anywhere, and efficient large-scale production methods have been invented relatively early, which made it easily available and widespread in the East.

It, however, took a while for the paper to get to Europe – the earliest paper document there dates back to the 11th century. Europeans, however, rather quickly developed a mechanized method of paper production by means of water power, thus turning it from a rare commodity to cheap and easily reproducible material.

It is fascinating to think that such simple things as paper and pencil have come such a long way before becoming ubiquitous household items – so ubiquitous that we hardly notice them.

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