Nürnberg: Pencil Capital of the World!

The title of this post is something I wrote in a comment on my previous post on Conrad Gesner. Nürnberg which is home-base to two of the world’s largest produces of drawing and writing instruments Faber-Castell and Staedtler Mars, both of whom started out as pencil manufacturers, could style itself in American fashion, “Pencil Capital of the World!” In fact it chooses to market itself as “Dürer City” figuring for some reason that a world famous Renaissance artist is sexier than the humble lead pencil. Now why Nürnberg is the major centre for the production of pencils and how this came about is something that has puzzled me since I settled here and being a historian I of course set about one day to find out why. I am now going to explain the answer to this question because it’s an interesting example of Renaissance knowledge and technology transfer.

Before turning to Nürnberg and the manufacture of pencils I have to fill in some background about the growth of Nürnberg and its position within Renaissance Europe. Like many European cities Nürnberg was founded at the beginning of the second millennium CE and like most of the others it was originally just a fort or castle on a rock outcrop at a strategically important crossroads. In fact the crossroads was the cause of Nürnberg’s rise to fame and fortune. If you draw a line from the north coast of Germany, say somewhere around Kiel, down to Northern Italy and a second one from Paris to Prague, both of which were important prosperous mediaeval cities, Nürnberg stands where those two lines cross. Nürnberg was a Free Imperial City, which means that it owed feudal allegiance to the German Emperor but to no other more local potentate or ruler. Armed with special tax and customs privileges granted by the Emperor Nürnberg became a major trading power distributing goods brought in from Asia by the North Italian trading cities to the rest of Europe. By the late 14th century the Nürnberg traders had become very rich and started to invest their surplus profits in the new expanding mining industry of Middle Europe. The High Middle Ages saw a massive surge in demand for metals and a rapid expansion of the mining industry, most of the mines being situated in Middle Europe in what is now Eastern Germany, The Czech Republic, Hungary, Rumania etc. Most famous was Joachimsthal in Bohemia centre of the silver mining industry whose silver coins were called Joachims Thaler, which became corrupted to dollar. By the 15th century the rich Nürnberg merchants controlled the Middle European mining industry, at first just trading the ores but the step by step taking over the smelting and production of the metals and finally setting up production units in Nürnberg for all sorts of metal objects, from jewellery to armour and weapons. By the end of the 15th century Nürnberg was one of the leading centres in Europe for metal-based manufacture, amongst other things it was the leading manufacturer of scientific instruments. In this period Nürnberg was the second biggest city in Germany and one of the richest cities in Europe as well as being a leading centre for arts and crafts. For example it was the largest manufacturing centre in Europe for spectacle lenses. The Nürnberg merchant traders also maintained the largest trading post in Venice.

We now turn our attention to the history of the pencil. Pencils originally consisted of a lead rod fitted with a silver tip, this enabled the user to make a faint grey line on his writing material. Sometime in the first half of the 16th century a large natural deposit of graphite was discovered on the surface near Borrowdale in Cumbria in Northern England, the only graphite deposit ever found on the surface. It was soon discovered that one could write better with the new ‘black lead’ than with silver point and the graphite pencil was born. The original deposit of graphite was cut into sticks that were then bound with cloth or string to fashion a writing implement. Over the next decades a healthy trade in the new English black lead pencils developed and the landowner in Cumbria started searching for new supplies of raw material. Because this meant mining he employed the best mining engineers available, the German miners from the metal mines in Middle Europe. These miners returning home at the beginning of the 17th century told their German employers, the merchant traders of Nürnberg, about graphite and the English pencils. Always on the look out to turn an honest Mark and having the best artisan craftsmen in Europe at their disposal they decided to try and get into the pencil market. Despite having the best mining experts in their employ the Nürnberger were unable to find massive graphite deposits in the English style but did discover deposits from which they could recover crushed graphite. They mixed the crushed graphite with other substances, originally various things and then finally clay, and encased their ‘leads’ in a wooden sheath consisting of two hollow halves glued together, a development in pencil making borrowed from the Italians who had replaced the original bindings with wood, and so the modern pencil was born.  Staedtler was established in the late 17th century and Farber-Castell in the early 18th century and both are still thriving today although they have long gone beyond the humble lead pencil.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Nürnberg: Pencil Capital of the World!

  1. Pingback: Nürnberg: Pencil Capital of the World! | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Since this sequence of posts began with an account of Gesner and some of his encyclopedic activities, it might be appropriate to mention the connection of Nurnberg with the immense Nurnberg Chronicles, published in that city in 1493. The Chronicles, a comprehensive history of the world, are another in the series of reference books that are discussed in Too Much to Know.

    I’ve never read more than a few paragraphs quoted from the Chronicles, though you see illustrations from the book reproduced frequently enough. The book is not alone as a comprehensive world history named after a single city. When I was in Spain many years ago I looked through a very old book in shop in Barcelona. It was written in Catalan and though its title was something like the History of Barcelona, it began, if I understood the first line correctly, “In the beginning God created heaven and earth.” Well, you run across history books these days that begin with the Big Bang, though I’ve never seen a modern city history that began at the beginning like the old Chronicles; and actually, if I remember correctly, the Nurnberg Chronicles not only begins at the Creation but features a last section on the events that will take place at the apocalypse, rather as if a Marxist historian in the old USSR included chapters on the world wide triumph of socialism in the 21st Century and the subsequent advent of true communism.

  3. Ian H Spedding FCD

    A fascinating and informative piece as usual, Thony. My family on my mother’s side is from the Lake District, mainly Barrow-in-Furness, so I have picked up a little information about the region, but that is new to me. Is there any explanation of why that should be the only surface deposit of graphite found so far?

  4. Ian, given that graphite like diamond is a thermal product of coal I think that the real question is how the hell did this deposit make it to the surface? The second problem is that lump graphite is usually found in relatively small quantities whereas the Borrowdale deposit must have been comparatively large. There is a legend which seems to have been dopped from the secondary literature as apocryphal that the Borrowdale deposit was discovered after an oak tree was struck by lightning.

    Maybe God was just feeling sorry for the Cumbrians and wanted to give them something to boast about ;)

  5. Pingback: The pocket diary: A great Renaissance invention | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  6. Pingback: The pocket diary: A great Renaissance invention | Whewell's Ghost

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