Why are pencils hexagonal?

a classic American pencil
a classic American pencil

Some pencils are round but most of them seem to be hexagonal.

A hexagonal is more comfortable to use, easier to make, and harder to roll off a table. Personally I find pencils too thin to hold with any comfort so I like to put a kind of rubber tube around the waist of the pencil.

Who invented the pencil sharpener?

Of course the very first pencil sharpeners were knives and blades, but the first patent for a tool especially for sharpening pencils was made by Bernard Lassimone, a French mathematician, in 1828. It looked something like this:

This isn't Lassimone's sharpener but it is similar.
This isn’t Lassimone’s sharpener but it is similar.

However the first mechanical pencil sharpener was invented by Therry des Estwaux, also from France in 1847. It looked something like this:

The Marion pencil sharpener
The Marion pencil sharpener

Now there are sharpeners with revolving handles, and even battery operated electric sharpeners, but I like the simple wooden ones like this:

Simple is best
Simple is best

Pencil: mechanical

What do you call it?
What do you call it?

What do you call this type of pencil?

Mechanical pencil? Propelling pencil? In Japan most of my students call it a Sharp pencil.

This type of pencil was invented in Britain in 1822 by Sampson Mordan and Gabriel Riddle.

The mechanical pencil became popular in Japan and in 1915 Tokuji Hayakawa first made the type of mechanical pencil that is still used today. He called it the Ever Ready Sharp Pencil.

At first sales were small, but after a few years sales suddenly boomed. Hayakawa started a company which he named Sharp. This is the origin of the world-famous electronics company which now makes everything from fridges to Aquos TVs.

Pencil: colour

Most pencils in The USA are a yellow colour. This was started by the Hardtmuth company in 1890 with their Koh-I-Noor brand pencil. Before this pencils were usually just unpainted wood.

But in other countries different colours are more popular. For example in Germany most pencils are green, and in Australia they are red.

Where are blue pencils popular?
Where are blue pencils popular?

Pencil: grading

You have all seen the letters H and B on your pencils.

‘H’ means hardness and ‘B’ means ‘blackness’.

The standard writing pencil is HB.

What is your pencil?
What is your pencil?

‘F’ is also used and this means fine.

This system was started in the early 1900s by an English pencil-maker named Brookman.

Pencil: wooden holders

The first people to make wooden holders for black graphite pencils were an Italian couple, Simonio and Lyndiana Bernacotti, sometime around 1560. They were carpenters and they used juniper wood to make a compact, flat pencil.

Shortly after a better way was found using two semi-circles of wood, which were glued together. This is basically the same method that is still used today. The two methods are shown in the drawings below.

You can now make your own pencils
You can now make your own pencils

Pencil: graphite

The black stuff that is used in pencils is graphite.

This graphite would make a few pencils
This graphite would make a few pencils

Graphite is actually pure carbon. It is like top quality coal.

Some time after the year 1500 a huge amount of pure graphite was discovered in the north of England. The local people realised that this graphite was very special stuff.

At first graphite sticks were found to be very good for marking sheep, but soon they were also used for writing on paper. To stop the fingers from getting black the graphite sticks were wrapped in string, or even sheepskin.

News of these early pencils spread fast, attracting artists from all over the world.

Pencil: original

The original pencil was just a thin, metal stick, which was used for scratching shapes and letters on to papyrus, which was an old type of paper. This was done by the ancient Egyptians and Romans, and the word ‘pencil’ comes from the Latin (Roman) word ‘pencillus’ which means ‘little tail’.

Ancient writing on papyrus paper
Ancient writing on papyrus paper