Let’s start the new school year with a new perspective — not of life or the upcoming academic year, but of what is in your pencil box. Each article in your box has its own life story, dating back to thousands of years! Let’s take a quick look at these quintessential pencil box items, and get a jump start on our history lessons. Bet your history teacher doesn’t know them too!
Pencil: The first thing you need to know about your lead pencil is that it does not contain lead. It’s actually graphite. In 1564, miners discovered a huge deposit of what looked like black lead in a town in England. This black lead or graphite, they realised, could be used for writing as it was darker than lead. Unfortunately, it was also brittle. So to keep it from breaking, the graphite — cut into thin rods —was inserted in wooden holders with a hollow centre — yes, that’s when the pencil, as we know it, was invented. Quite an improvement on the metal sticks by ancient Egyptians and Romans used to scratch the words on a paper-like material called papyrus. Our teachers definitely wouldn’t appreciate that!
Pen: With time seeming to fly especially during exams, imagine having to write with a bamboo straw or a quill that will invariably tear up your paper. Plus you will have to dip it constantly in an ink pot to write! At this rate, answering even the first five questions will be an achievement. But thanks to Romanian inventor Petrache Poenaru, we now get to write with “never-ending portable pen, which recharges itself with ink” — that was the description of his patent applied with the French government for the world’s first fountain pen in 1827.
Eraser: You will never guess what people used before the invention of erasers to remove pencil marks. They used bread! According to theatlantic.com, until the 1770s, people relied on bread that had been “de-crusted, moistened and balled up”. But they were replaced by erasers, as bread would rot. In 1770, Joseph Priestley stumbled upon a substance that had the ability to erase pencil marks. But it was English engineer Edward Nairne who, on discovering the erasing properties, marketed it commercially.
Sharpener: Sharpening a pencil was a dangerous activity before the invention of sharpeners, as knives/blades were used — that would be any parent’s nightmare. The idea for pencil sharpening machines began in 1828 when French mathematician Bernard Lassimone patented the first prototype of a pencil sharpener. Although it was a lot better than using knives, it was a slow process, so it didn’t find much favour. There were many improvements made by several inventors. But it was in 1847, that fellow Frenchman Thierry des Estivaux invented an instrument that closely resembled the sharpeners of today — inserting a pencil into a conical hole. And that is the story of our modern day sharpeners.
Ruler/ Scale: Every civilisation, dynasty, region had its own measuring system — distances were measured using number of steps taken, length by the palm or forehand, even stones or other standardised measuring system. It was only after France introduced the mètre des Archives and the kilogramme des Archives in 1799 and convinced other countries to adopt it, that the uniform modern metric system came into existence. But as far as the rulers that form an important part of our pencil box go, there is no certain point in time that pinpoints to their invention. Ivory rulers dating back to 1500 BC were excavated at the site of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Archaeologists have also unearthed a ruler that dates back to 2400BC. The first unit of length however was the cubit used by the Egyptians and Babylonians.
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