main page
my pencils
UK brands
why pencils


Some notes about some of the people influential in pencil history. You should be able to find out more about all of these by searching the net further - use your favourite search engine.

There are many famous names in the pencil business, many of them still imprinted on the pencils we use: A W Faber, Joseph Dixon, Musgrave, Johan Faber, Eberhard Faber, Berolzheimer, Thoreau, Wolffe, Staedtler, Armand Hammer and many others. This page is dedicated to a few of them: the innovators, the ones who made the pencil what it is today:

Nicolas-Jacques Conté (1755-1805)

The first of my heroes is Nicolas Conté, the man who can truly be said to be the inventor of the modern lead pencil. Prior to Conté’s time pencils had almost all been made from lumps of pure graphite, mined from the Borrowdale mine in England and sawed into strips that were then encased in wood. In 1794 all this changed when Conté, already a famous inventor and scientist was charged by his patron, Carnot, to invent a substitute for the now expensive and difficult to come by pure English graphite. It took him just 8 days to produce a workable lead. In just over a week he had invented what was to become known as the Conté process: a way to make pencil leads from powdered graphite and clay that us still, essentially, used today

Previous attempts to use graphite in powdered form (perhaps from material extracted from low quality ore in poorer mines, or in an attempt to use the waste products generated by sawing and cutting) had always foundered but Conté worked out how to mix graphite in powdered form with clay, and bake it, in such a way that not only did he produce a usable lead, but was able to make leads in varying degrees of hardness.

Nicholas Conté was, however more than just a pencil maker. He was a painter, chemist, physicist and engineer: a scientist of some repute. His reputation as an expert in balloon warfare ensured his inclusion in the party of some 200 academics and scientists to accompany Napoleon on his expedition to Egypt in 1798. On this expedition Napoleon and his forces conquered Egypt, uncovered the sphinx (which was previously almost buried under the desert) and discovered and deciphered the Rosetta Stone. Conté himself set up workshops outside Cairo where he manufactured saltpetre, bugles and, most impressively, machine tools for use in the factories set up by the invading French.When Conté demonstrated his hot air balloons to the astonished Egyptians they concluded that he was in league with the devil.

As well as his process for mixing leads, Conté is also generally credited with inventing the machinery needed to make round leads, and he can truly be said to be the creator of the pencil. Indeed, for about 100 years, pencils in France were known as the crayons Conté and of course pencils continue to be made with the Conté brand name to this day.

Franz von Hardtmuth

Franz's grandfather, Josef Hardtmuth lived in Vienna where he opened his pencil factory in 1790. He seems to have independently invented the Conté process in 1797, about three years after Conté himself, however the date is not certain and some claim that he invented the process as early as 1790 when the factory opened. either way, Josef founded the family firm of L&C Hardtmuth, which came have major factories in Vienna and the Czech town of Budweis (where Budweiser lager was first brewed, and for which 19th century German emigrants the US would later name their beer, much to the delight of 20th century trademark lawyers).

If the timing, and details of Josef's invention are doubtful, which is why he doesn't make it properly on to my list of heroes, the influence of his grandson, and my second hero, Franz, years later, was incontestable, and can still be seen in any stationery shop in the US: for Franz invented the yellow pencil. It was called the Koh-I-Noor and pencils of that brand are still manufactured today.

The name, and the colour were a brilliant marketing invention because they suggested the Orient, and at that time (the Koh-I-Noor was produced in 1890) everyone knew that the best graphite in the world came from the East – or to be precise from the Alibert mine near the Chinese border, in Siberia. The Koh-I-Noor contained no Siberian graphite, but nevertheless started an Oriental trend in the US that has persisted to this day: it is said that approximately 75% of pencils sold in the US are painted yellow, and the Oriental names that other manufactures chose to compete with the Koh-I-Noor, the Mongol, the Mikado (now Mirado) and Mephisto all bear witness to the influence of the firm of L&C Hardtmuth, and Franz Hardtmuth in particular..–

Jean-Pierre Alibert (1820 –1905)

Which brings me nicely to my third hero, another Frenchman, but this time one who lived in Siberia, was worshipped by the local tribes people, an explorer, trader, miner, businessman and dreamer who revolutionised an industry: his name was Jean-Pierre (or Ivan-Petrovich) Alibert.

Alibert was born in France in 1820. In 1847 he was living in Siberia where, excited by the tales of gold in California, he went prospecting for gold. What he found in a local river was even more unexpected: smooth, round lumps of black, pure graphite. Reasoning from their shape that they must have been carried a long way by the river he set about tracing the river (and all its tributaries of course) backwards looking for the source. Eventually he found it – some 250 miles from where he had first found graphite – at the river’s source high in the Mountains near the Chinese Border.

It was there that he built his mine, and from there shipped graphite thousands of miles to Europe. By the end of the C19 Alibert’s mine, and Siberian graphite, were a synonymous with quality pencils were produced with the wording: Siberian Graphite, and Alibert Mine. I have about 15 in my collection. Alibert's enthusiasm for his graphite was endless: he is said to have personally sorted and graded the graphite produced in his mine which, at it's best, was certified by English scientists as being the equal of that produced by the now-exhausted mine at Borrowdale (and certified by French scientists as being far superior to it!)

Alibert sold exclusive rights to the graphite produced in his mine to the German firm of A.W.Faber, and it was this purchase, once they had mastered the Conté process, that was to make a cottage industry into a world-famous firm. Alibert is commemorated (I believe) by a museum in his home town of Riom in France. Those interested in Alibert might be interested in this proposed film of his life.

To be continued

(In later editions I plan to cover Lothar Faber, Joseph Dixon and Armand Hammer)