The Good Old Mechanical Pencil!

Students, artists, and engineers alike are all very familiar with the mechanical pencil. Preferred by many, the mechanical pencil is reusable, refillable, and always sharp. The little mechanical pencils that students love to fidget with are a surprisingly old invention! The idea of an “always sharp” pencil has been an attractive one for centuries and produced many variations of the much-beloved plastic pencils of today.

The first person to “invent” the mechanical pencil was the man who first invented the pencil itself. Conrad Gesner improved on the original stick of lead by devising a holder. The holder supported the lead, and the lead could be adjusted downwards and sharpened. This was not a true mechanical pencil as we would think of it today- it is not always sharp and needs to be manually adjusted. Still, Gesner’s holder was an innovation that paved the way for standard and mechanical pencils alike. Previously, people would simply hold the stick of lead.

A stick of lead with Futhark Runes etched into it.
mararie, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The next time a mechanical pencil pops up in history in is 1791. The HMS Pandora, a Porcupine class frigate of the English navy, was sunk near the Great Barrier Reef. Onboard was a mechanical pencil! This was not discovered until 1977 when the ship was finally located. This is still not quite a “mechanical pencil” as we would think of it today.

The 1800s were when the mechanical pencil began to take off. In 1822 the first patent for a mechanical pencil that had a replaceable lead and a method to push the lead forward was filed in Britain. Sampson Mordan and John Hawkins had filed the patent, but only Sampson manufactured the pencils. He called the pencils the “ever-pointed” pencils. His company, S. Mordan and Co, manufactured the pencils from 1837 until World War II.

Mordan’s patent drawings for his mechanical pencil

In 1833, James Bogardus patented a similar pencil in the United States. His “forever pointed” pencils were encased in a metal tube, but there is little evidence it went into mass-production.

Well over 150 patents were filed in the 1800’s for many variations of the mechanical pencil. 1877 had the first spring loaded system. This is the system mainly used today, with a “push button” design that moves the lead forward with the simple click of a button. John Hoffmann designed the spring loaded system and incorporated it into the Eagle Automatic company. These pencils, while very close to today’s style of pencil, had far too much “give” to the lead, making them hard to use. 1895 introduced a twist feed system which was not as popular as the push-button design.

An ad for an Eagle Pencil Company Mikado pencil
The Eagle Pencil Company made various pencils- the mechanical pencil was only a small part of what they offered!

 The event that really propelled the pencil into wide usage was the patent filed by Tokuji Hayakawa in 1915. He changed the casing to a nickel casing and improved on the feeding process of the lead. It took a few years, but a large order from a trading firm helped to popularize the “Ever-Ready Sharp Pencil.”

An interesting pen/mechanical pencil combo!

The mechanical pencil did go through several improvements since 1915. Most are now constructed mainly of plastic, and the sizes of the leads range anywhere between .2 to .9. Many include an attached eraser. However, traditional mechanical pencils used by engineers are often still made of metal and do not include the attached eraser.

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