After the 16th-century discovery of a large source of pure and solid graphite in Cumbria, the invention of the pencil soon followed in the 1560s.
The dark and crumbly new resource was initially mistaken for lead – it was named plumbago (meaning ‘lead ore’ in Latin) – but people quickly realised it produced a darker dye. The soft nature of graphite, however, meant that the initial writing sticks snapped too easily, so they had to be wrapped in string or wool to keep them in one piece.
This idea was developed into a new technique where the graphite could be encased in two strips of juniper wood glued together. We know the Swiss naturalist Konrad Gesner observed such a wooden pencil, and the device was immediately adopted by European artists. Indeed, it’s due to their influence that its name stuck – pincel was the French word for a tiny single hair paint brush used for delicate detailing.