A Brief History of the Mechanical Pencil

Despite what David Rees claims in Chapter 11 of How to Sharpen Pencilsmechanical pencils do have their place in the pencilverse.

Surprisingly, this wonder of pencil technology has actually existed in one form or another for the better part of five centuries. If you take a look at pencil history, you will see that the first image of a pencil ever produced actually looks more like modern mechanical pencils than a wooden pencil. This 1567 image depicts a wooden stock that held replaceable graphite. It doesn’t have the modern convenience of accessing more lead with just a click, but it still features many of the hallmarks of a modern-day mechanical pencil.

Vague details exist of a brass propelling pencil that used a spring as early as 1636 and an actual early mechanical pencil was found on the wreckage of the HMS Pandora, a ship that sank in 1791. But the first mechanical pencil patent wasn’t applied for until 1822, when John Hawkins and Sampson Mordan patented an “ever-pointed” pencil in Britain. Eleven years later, James Bogardus patented a “forever pointed” pencil in the U.S.

Sampson Mordan Mechanical Pencil

While these patents mark a great step forward in pencil history, the giant leap wouldn’t occur until 1879. This is when Joseph Hoffmann invented the pushbutton clutch in New York City. First incorporated into the Eagle Automatic, a product of the Eagle Pencil Company, this represents the first true mechanical pencil. As impressive as these mechanical pencils had become, they still had a design flaw when compared to traditional wooden pencils. The clutch on the Eagle Automatic had too much give for these pencils to be used for professional drafting.

This problem was fixed in Japan in 1915 with the Ever-Ready Sharp Pencil and again in Geneva in 1929 with the Caran d’Ache Fixpencil. Since then, the biggest changes in mechanical pencils are the switch from metal and wood casings to plastic casings, at least for casual pencil use, and the inclusion of an eraser on the end of most mechanical pencils. Both of these features are designed to make mechanical pencils more convenient for school and everyday use. Mechanical drafting pencils still tend to be made of metal and rarely have attached erasers.

Want to learn more about pencil history? Check out our history of the woodcased pencil.

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2 replies
    • Laurey Sanchez
      Laurey Sanchez says:

      Thank you Mr. David,
      I am doing a science project for reverse engineering. Right now I am doing the research and this has helped. I don’t want every single detail, so this was perfect!!!!!!!!

      Reply

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