The History of Pencils

Online Listening Lesson

Listening level: 2
Audio file: 3:36 min
Story length: 425 words


The History of Pencils

What’s the world’s most important writing tool? It might be the pencil. Cheap and easy to use, kids around the world learn to write with it. Artists draw with it. Great thinkers use it to make notes about great ideas. Where would we be without the pencil?

The history of the pencil begins hundreds of years ago.

Around the 1500s, farmers in England needed a way to mark their sheep. These marks told farmers who owned the animals. They used a soft, black material to put marks on their sheep. This material looked like coal but was much softer. That material was graphite.

Graphite is a good material for writing on paper, but it was easy to break. The early pencil inventors wrapped string around a piece of graphite. Later some smart people cut a hole inside a long piece of wood. Then, they put a slice of graphite inside the hole. That was the first wooden pencil. For a long time, England controlled the world’s production of pencils because the only high quality graphite mine was in England.

England controlled the supply of pencils until the late 1790s. Around this time, several people in France and Germany found a new way to make pencils with low quality graphite, which was easy to find in many parts of the world. The recipe was simple. Crush some low quality graphite into a powder and mix it with clay.

This clay mixture was then rolled into long, thin sticks and heated in an oven. The result was a hard graphite stick. Later, the stick was placed in between two pieces of wood. The wood was glued together. Now you have the beginning of the modern pencil.

In the late 1800s, several inventions in America improved pencil production. Joseph Dixon found a way to mass produce pencils with a special machine. One machine could make 132 pencils per minute.

Another improvement was the pencil shape. For a long time, pencils had square bodies and square graphite sticks. These pencils were hard to sharpen. Most people used a knife to sharpen their pencils.

Dixon found a way to put round graphite sticks into a round or hexagon shaped pencil body. That made his pencils comfortable to use and easy to sharpen. By the 1870s, Dixon’s company was the world’s largest pencil maker.

Today, almost 14 billion pencils are sold each year around the world. In the age of computers and the internet, it seems like the simple pencil is still the most important writing tool.

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