Sunday, June 7, 2009

The History of Pencils: Over 400 years old


The first 'lead pencils', in today's sense, originated from England where graphite was discovered in the Cumbrian Mountains. At that time it was believed that 'lead ore' had been found. Hence the name lead pencil. It was only at the end of the 18th century that the chemist Karl Wilhelm Scheele proved that the lead pencil contained graphite (carbon) and not lead.

The graphite from the Cumbrian mine in England was exploited to such an extent that the English government set the death penalty on its export.

The quality of the English graphite and the pencils made from it continually decreased. It was only through its monopoly position that England could also sell these inferior pencils at high prices. Binding agents like glue, rubber, tragacanth etc. were added in order to make the graphite last longer.

The lead pencil first appeared in Germany in 1644 in a notepad belonging to an Artillery Officer. Caspar Faber started up his own pencil manufacturing business in Stein near Nuremberg in 1761.

Decisive for the flourishing of the lead pencil industry in Germany was the, at that time revolutionary, contribution of Lothar von Faber during the 19th century. It was through Lothar von Faber, later appointed Imperial Counsellor, that the Nuremberg area developed into the centre of the German lead pencil production.

From 1839 onwards, he improved the so-called clay-graphite process, a process which was almost simultaneously invented by the French Conté and the Austrian Hartmuth at the end of the 18th century. Since that time, ground graphite and clay have been mixed, shaped into graphite strips and fired. It was the mixing of clay and graphite which now also made it possible to manufacture pencils in different grades of hardness. Lothar von Faber increased the efficiency of his factory. A water power facility was installed, the sawing and grooving of the wood was mechanised and a steam engine increased production rationalisation. The path to large-scale industry was free.

In 1856, he purchased a graphite mine not far from Irkutsk in Siberia. The graphite from this mine was at that time the best graphite available. Before this 'black gold' could be transported by sea from the nearest port, it had to be transported immense distances overland on the back of reindeers.

The factory owner also did something else which was exceptional at that time: He printed his name on his quality pencils - the first brand-name writing utensils in Germany were born. Lothar von Faber is recognised as the creator of the hexagonal lead pencil and he established length, strength and hardness grades standards which were adopted by almost all other manufacturers.

This made the 'Faber pencils' the synonym for quality pencils per se as early as the middle of the last century. He also placed importance on the best quality for labels, catalogues and packaging.

He was also the first among the lead pencil manufacturers to travel throughout Germany and abroad with samples of his product range. He demanded reasonable prices for his pencils, prices which were otherwise only attained by the 'English products'. His pencils became sought-after products in Germany and abroad in the middle of the last century.

Other Nuremberg lead pencil factories followed his example. Companies like Staedtler, Schwan, Lyra and others were founded during the 19th century. At the end of the 19th century, there were about 25 lead pencil factories in Nuremberg producing annually up to 250 million pencils with a value of 8.5 million Marks. Faber alone, the largest company of its type, employed 1,000 people. The world-wide lead in the lead pencil manufacture was thus transferred completely to Germany and concentrated in and around Nuremberg.
Remarkable is the early internationalism in the lead pencil business: From 1849 onwards, Lothar von Faber founded subsidiaries in New York, London, Paris, Vienna and Petersburg. His trading success extended to the Middle East and even to China.

In order to protect himself from frequent name theft, he submitted a petition for the protection of brand products to the Imperial Diet in 1874. This law took effect in 1875. Faber was therefore also a pioneer of the uniform proprietary right in Germany.

The quality and the manufacturing process of lead and coloured pencils have seen continual improvement from the pioneer period to the present time. Although shape and look of the pencils are still the same today, the earlier pencils cannot be compared to the purity and reliability of today's products. However, FABER-CASTELL with its annual production output of more than 1.8 billion wood-cased pencils is still the most important manufacturer in the world.

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