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Mechanical Pencil Month – Day 1: Borrowdale Plumbago

Object number one is not actually a pencil at all, mechanical or otherwise, yet without it the history of drawing would have turned out very differently. Said to have been discovered in 1564 and first used by farmers to mark their sheep (see, I told you there would be sheep), the large scale deposit of graphite at Borrowdale in Cumbria, England, remains the only one of its kind and purity ever found.

The material – also known as “wadd” or plumbago because it was thought to be a variety of lead – soon became prized for its dense, black mark-making qualities. Such was its purity that it could be cut into thin sticks which were initially wrapped in string or leather to make a rudimentary writing instrument (kneaded balls of bread were used as erasers).

Graphite from the Plumbago Mine at Seathwaite, Borrowdale, Cumberland with centimetre scale

By the 17th century, the practice of sandwiching graphite strips between pieces of wood had been established, as can be seen in what is regared as the world’s oldest surviving pencil (found in the roof of a house built in 1630 and now in the collection of Faber-Castell). The word pencil at the time was used to mean a thin brush for painting, only later becoming associated with the wood-cased drawing instrument as we know it. Demand for graphite became so high that, after an armed raid on a Cumberland graphite mine in 1752, an Act of Parliament was passed to criminalise the theft of wadd, punishable by up to seven years’ transportation to Australia.

Weight of graphite from the Plumbago Mine at Seathwaite, Borrowdale, Cumberland

Despite strict limits on mining, by the late 19th century Borrowdale’s deposits had been almost completely exhausted. However, in 1795 Nicholas-Jacques Conté had perfected a technique of mixing powdered graphite with clay, which opened up the possibility of using less pure graphite deposits for pencil making. Conté’s discovery also allowed the creation of different grades of lead, central to the development of the modern mechanical pencil.

This particular specimen of Borrowdale plumbago, obtained from an old collection of minerals, is largely composed of pure graphite, with small inclusions of what appear to be iron-based compounds. The graphite areas are very soft and greasy, roughly equivalent to a 6B pencil in darkness and smudginess.

Graphite from the Plumbago Mine at Seathwaite, Borrowdale, Cumberland detail

However, some of the gritty extremities are much harder and sharper – I used a corner to add some faint construction lines to the geometric drawing below, which felt equivalent to a hard pencil of 4H or above.

Graphite from the Plumbago Mine at Seathwaite, Borrowdale, Cumberland drawing construction lines

This grittiness was a common complaint of early pencil users, and explains why the purest Cumberland graphite was so highly prized. Until tomorrow, I will leave you with this succinct blog post from the British Library for a potted history of the pencil and its antecedents, ending with the establishment of the Cumberland pencil industry.

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