Note: Much of the factual information regarding the general history of pencils in these essays is from The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance, by Henry Petroski. Factual information regarding the history of drafting and drawing reproduction is primarily from various editions of Thomas French’s Engineering Drawing textbooks and from catalogs published by various drafting equipment suppliers. Everything else is personally researched by me from first sources such as manufacturer catalogs, patent documents, and discussions with people who were involved in making the history themselves.
• History of Drafting Leadholders
|Drafting Leadholder Origins||2006 March 22|
|Leadholder Evolution||2006 March 22|
|Additional Leadholder Developments||2003 November 21|
|History of Lead Degree Indication on Leadholders||2003 November 21|
||2003 November 21|
|History of Mechanical Pencils (in progress)|
|The Development of Polymer Lead (in progress)|
||2003 November 21|
The concept for a lead holder probably dates to ancient times, but the “lead,” as we know it—that is, graphite—would not become widely known and used until the sixteenth century.
The forerunner of leadholders is the porte-crayon. The porte-crayon’s function is to protect an artist’s hands from messy drawing materials. The essential design consists of a pair of “jaws” between which a hunk of messy stuff (charcoal, chalk, etc.) is pinched in conjunction with a sliding tension ring which draws the jaws together and holds them via friction. (See below.) The material out of which such a device is constructed could be one of any number of things. The fully developed porte-crayon as it came to be used in seventeenth century Europe was made of metal and such tools are still used by artists today.
Graphite as originally discovered in Cumbria, England, is a solid mass that had to be sawn into thin enough pieces to be useful for drawing or writing. The resultant sticks of graphite were brittle and someone somewhere (there seems to be a continuing debate about exactly who, when, and where) had the brilliant idea to encase the graphite permanently in wood. Thus the pencil as we know it was developed. It kept the hands of the user clean, and even more importantly, it protected the expensive virgin graphite rods from breakage.
As the reliable wood encased pencil was perfected through the 17th and 18th centuries, these became the instrument of choice for draftsmen. The advantage of shoring up the lead against breakage by encasing it firmly in wood made these pencils excellent for drawing and was a much more efficient use of the relatively rare and expensive graphite than using sticks of the stuff thick enough to support themselves, as was necessary for refillable pencils.
Despite the success of the wood cased pencil, leadholders, it seems, never fully disappeared. Examples of these proto-“mechanical pencils” appear in an unbroken series of evolving designs from the description of Gesner’s pencil in 1567 to the multi-adjustable precision instruments of today.
In 1794, Nicolas-Jacques Conté developed a method of manufacturing pencil leads from low quality graphite that was previously unusable. In this new process, the graphite was ground and mixed with clay powder. To this mixture was added enough water to make it a pliable “dough,” the dough was then formed into sticks, dried, and fired in a kiln at high temperature to create ceramic/graphite composite leads. This was an important step in the evolution of drafting pencils and is still the way most pencil leads are made. Once perfected, the new process allowed the development of stronger leads than could previously be obtained and for the first time leads with a consistent variety of hardnesses could be made which aided the draftsman in creating lines of varying thickness and density necessary for the readability of his drawings.
With the precise control over the shape and hardness of pencil leads that the Conté process gave the manufacturer of pencils, by the early 1800s it became possible to make leads thinner and more uniform than was previously practical. It was a small step then for the development of refillable pencils that could adapt to uses for which the wood cased pencil was not well suited. The most popular use of “naked” leads was for pencils which could be conveniently and cleanly carried in the pocket with no need for sharpening. Such a pencil was first patented by Sampson Mordan et al. of England in 1822. His pencil was quite sophisticated, employing a propelling mechanism and using a surprisingly thin ~1 mm lead. This new style of pencil would be developed in an astonishing variety of sizes and materials and are collected today as “Victorian Pencils.”
The first leadholder that was perfectly suited for drafting was introduced by A.W. Faber of Germany circa 1860. A French A.W. Faber catalog from 1862 features the pencil with this translated description: “New Artists’ Pencils with Refillable Lead for Design, Architecture, and Office,” establishing that from the begining, this pencil was marketed to Architectural draftsmen. It differed from existing mechanical pencils in several ways: It was long, not pocket sized; the wooden barrel was hollow throughout its length to accept a correspondingly long lead; and it was styled and stamped like Faber’s wood encased drawing pencils. Despite A.W. Faber’s 1861 patent laying claim to the twist locking clutch mechanism, this type of clutch was not new. Such twist lock mechanisms were common in early mechanical pencils. The main departure for this pencil was the length and quality of the lead developed for use in it.
A.W. Faber introduced with this pencil what has become the standard size lead for leadholders: 5 inches long and 2 mm in diameter. Unlike today’s leads, however, all degrees were not identical in diameter. Leads of degrees B, HB, F, H, 2H through 6H were 2 mm, leads of 2B through 5B were slightly larger, and the 6B leads were larger still. Each degree of lead had a uniquely marked leadholder. (The degree indication “HHHHHH” can be seen in the example above near the end of the barrel.)
The drafting leadholder was originally conceived as a variation of the disposable wooden drafting pencil. The Koh-I-Noor wood barreled leadholder and wood cased pencil pictured below are both of 1950s vintage. Note the model numbers: 1500 for the wooden pencil and 1511 for the leadholder. The 1511 leadholder shared the model number sequence, color and markings including lead degree indication, and even came packaged in boxes similar to those of the disposable pencil.
The “refillable pencil,” as early leadholders were often called, was just that: the wooden case of the traditional drafting pencil with a replaceable, loose lead. Such pencils were fitted with a clutch to permit the adjustment of the lead without cutting away the wood. This conception is distinct from that of other mechanical pencils in a number of ways. First, the adjustable lead of the leadholder was never intended as a replacement for sharpening.
|The sharpening process for drafting pencils consisted of two distinct operations: cutting back the wood case to expose the lead, and the shaping of a fine point on the lead. (See T. French's discussion of drafting pencils.) The shaving of the wood was done less frequently than the pointing. It was critical for the draftsman to keep a consistent point on his instrument and so he would maintain the point constantly. The wood was shaved significantly farther back than was necessary to create the initial point so that the draftsman could re-point the lead numerous times before the wood needed to be cut away again. This two step operation is what generates the characteristic stepped taper of the draftsman's pencil point.
Another distinction between early mechanical pencils and leadholders was esthetics. One huge drive in the development of mechanical pencils in the nineteenth century was fashion. Let’s face it, many pencils then, as well as now, were mere jewelry. The draftsman's leadholder was and is a firm statement of utility.
The Pushbutton Spring Clutch
The pushbutton clutch, so familiar on today’s leadholders, was invented by Joseph Hoffman of New York City. In his patent applied for in May of 1879 he includes two embodiments of his invention. One is the familiar end mounted pushbutton type which can easily be operated with one hand, the other is a peculiar form in which the nose is spring-loaded and requires the use of a second hand to manipulate as would be the case with a twist lock leadholder. This invention apparently caught the attention of somebody at the Eagle Pencil Company as the pencil was soon availalbe as the Eagle Automatic and numerous patents for similar instruments were to be filed by Mr. Hoffman as assignor to the Eagle Pencil Co. over the next 20 years or so.
In 1929 Carlo Schmid, a Geneva engineer, designed a pencil that would quietly revolutionize the way draftsmen viewed mechanical drafting pencils. This was sold as the Caran d’Ache Fixpencil, which has remained essentially unchanged since its introduction. The Fixpencil was the first drafting pencil to successfully employ the pushbutton spring clutch. Although this mechanism was known in the 19th century, it had never been rendered with such precision. Previous spring clutch pencils such as the Eagle Automatic pencil had clutch jaws that could not hold the lead firmly enough to meet the demands of a professional artist or draftsman. The twist lock clutch had the advantage of the inherent adjustibility of the clamping pressure allowing the user to adapt it to the particulars of his situation. The Fixpencil's mechanism addressed these issues with precisely engineered and machined jaws which would increase their hold as pressure was applied to the lead yet spread the compressive holding force over a large enough area of the lead to prevent it from breaking.
During World War II many industries in the United States including the pencil industry were not allowed to use unnecessary metals. Even the ferrule of the common writing pencil was replaced with plastic or paper. This may have affected leadholder production, if not by eliminating them altogether, then by discouraging the use of metal clutches.
After the War, the new type of clutch mechanism pioneered by Caran d’Ache was favored, rendering the 150+ year old twist lock clutch obsolete within a few years. Pencils with pushbutton clutches began appearing in rapidly increasing numbers: in France, the Gilbert & Blanzy-Poure Criterium was introduced in 1939; in Central Europe, the L&C Hardtmuth Versatil in 1946; in the USA, the A.W. Faber Castell Locktite 9400 in 1947; in Germany, the A.W. Faber Castell TK9400 in 1948.
The pushbutton spring clutch is still used on and estimated 90% or more of all 2 mm leadholders, the remaining being auto advancing mechanisms. The twist lock clutch is no longer produced except for industrial applications such as lumber crayon holders.
With the perfected form of drafting leadholders in place, the story of leadholders in the 70 plus years since the introduction of the pushbutton clutch is primarily a story of proliferation. By the middle of the 1950s there were hundreds of varieties available. Browse through the Leadholder Gallery to see many examples. Some of particular interest are:
The first drafting leadholder by A.W. Faber
This finely crafted early Dixon Eldorado
A leadholder from drawing instrument maker T. Alteneder & Sons
One from Eagle Pencil Co. with a reverse twist lock clutch
The first pushbutton spring clutch from Caran d’Ache
An early Koh-I-Noor "Adapto Clutch" model
An unusual auto advancing/spring lock clutch from the Tru-Point company
In the late 19th century, handheld bladed sharpeners became available. These were adapted for draftsmen's use by positioning the blade such that the wood case would be trimmed from around the lead, but the lead would pass through the sharpener uncut. The exposed lead would then be sharpened with sandpaper.
Variations of such pointers included models that were designed to remain attached to the pencil and those that also included a small blade for pointing the lead in a separate operation.
Just as handheld sharpeners had models that sharpened the wood and lead in one operation, and draftsman's models that cut away only the lead, mechanical crank operated sharpeners had such versions as well.
Such draftsman’s wood-cased pencil sharpeners were not ideal, however. Because the diameter of the lead in wood-cased pencils varies with the degree, a hard lead might not be fully exposed, or soft lead could break under the pressure of being scraped while isolated from the support of the wood case. Also, if the lead was not perfectly centered, the asymmetrical forces on the lead during sharpening would cause frequent breakage.
Because of these limitations, such sharpeners could not make using wood-cased drafting pencils as painless as using leadholder would become once lead pointers were perfected.
The lead pointer that finally displaced the sandpaper strip in Europe was the Gedess, invented in 1941. Early versions of this pointer included a wood-case trimmer in the base. This pointer is ubiquitous to this day wherever manual drafting is still done in Europe.
In the US it was the Tru-Point lead pointer that revolutionized the way pencils were sharpened. It was faster than using sandpaper, far cleaner, and could be operated with one hand. But even the ubiquitous Tru-Point, which is often mistaken by “antiques” dealers as some 19th or early 20th century contraption, did not appear until 1950. Also at about this time, numerous bladed pointers were developed.
You may have noticed that some leadholders come equipped with a tiny lead pointer built into the removable pushbutton. The usefulness of this feature is debatable. Here is what one experienced draftsman had to say about such pointers:
I have a couple of old Staedtlers [leadholders] from my days in art school and never paid any attention to the holes in the pushbuttons until I found out from descriptions on Leadholder that they were lead pointers. I tried it out right away. What a goofy idea.
I remember that a 'sixties drafting office was a dirty environment and the guys did all manner of things to keep the drawings clean. They ritually washed their triangles every week or so. They sprinkled the drawings with Skum-X which consisted of ground up erasings. Most of them used Tru-Points and the ones that used a sandpaper block hung it from a string so it dangled over the waste basket. Everyone rolled up his shirt sleeves to keep his cuffs clean and most wore either an apronI used a carpenter's nail bagor a smock to keep his shirt front and necktie clean.
The last place you want loose graphite powder in a drafting office is spewing from the wrong end of your pencil. Putting a lead pointer in the pushbutton turns your leadholder into the Anti-Skum-X, a device diabolically designed to progagate black smudges throughout the office and guaranteed to get your drawings dirty. Has anyone ever used this special feature twice?
The History of Thin Lead Drafting Pencils
One way to examine the history of drafting pencils, and maybe pencils as a whole is to understand today's thin lead mechanical pencils as the finest expression of pencil technology and that the history of drafting pencils has been a constant march toward thinner and thinner leads ending in mechanisms and leads the precise thickness of the lines to be drawn with them.
While true that the thickness of lead corresponds in general to the age of the mechanical design of a pencil, thinner was not always an improvement.
It was not until the introduction of polymer based leads developed by Faber-Castell in the 1950s* that true thin lead pencils – with lead the thickness of the line to be drawn – that draftsmen began to appreciate the efficiency of such a drawing tool.
* p 68. Hambly, Maya. Drawing Instruments 1580-1980. Sotheby's. 1988.