The modern pencil was invented in 1795 by Nicholas-Jacques Conte, a scientist serving in the army of Napoleon Bonaparte. The magic material that was so appropriate for the purpose was the form of pure carbon that we call graphite. It was first discovered in Europe, in Bavaria at the start of the fifteenth century; although the Aztecs had used it as a marker several hundred years earlier. Initially it was believed to be a form of lead and was called ‘plumbago’ or black lead (hence the ‘plumbers’ who mend our lead water-carrying pipes), a misnomer that still echoes in our talk of pencil ‘leads’. It was called graphite only in 1789, using the Greek word ‘graphein’ meaning ‘to write’. Pencil is an older word, derived from the Latin ‘pencillus’, meaning ‘little tail’, to describe the small ink brushes used for writing in the Middle Ages.
Pencils are yellow because, in the 1890’s, the world’s best pencil graphite came from China. In China, the color yellow is associated with royalty, so American pencil manufacturers started painting their pencils yellow to indicate they contained high-quality Chinese graphite.