ULYSSES GRANT, an American general, jotted down battle plans with one. Otto von Bismarck, a Prussian chancellor, used his to tamp down the tobacco in his pipe. Vincent van Gogh used one to “draw a woman sewing” and found they “produce a marvellous black and are very agreeable to work with.”
Craftsmen have made pencils in Stein, near Nuremberg, for nearly four centuries. Faber-Castell, the world's biggest branded pencil manufacturer, has done so since 1761. Its task is daunting: to improve a product that pencil-lovers insist has been perfect for well over a century. Among these is Count Anton Wolfgang von Faber-Castell, a dapper former investment banker and the eighth member of his family to run the firm. “At my home I have a Faber-Castell pencil I bought from an antique dealer that must be from 1890 or 1895,” he says. “It writes perfectly, even after all these years. That's the fantastic thing with a pencil.”
Many people thought that pencils would become obsolete in the computer age, yet sales continue to grow. Perhaps 15 billion-20 billion are made each year, roughly half of them in China. Faber-Castell produces about 2.2 billion. They are cheap, sturdy and popular in schools, especially in poor countries. As countries grow richer, children's pencil cases grow fatter, though only up to a point. Sales of pencils in most European countries are growing only slowly, if at all.Faber-Castell, however, has kept growing despite the recession. In its past financial year sales increased by almost 6%. The firm does well in emerging markets with vast numbers of bright-eyed schoolchildren. It is also grabbing market share in the rich world by making its pencils better. This is nothing new for Faber-Castell. Lothar von Faber, the great-grandson of the company's founder, took over in 1839 and invented the hexagonal pencil. By cutting the edges off a cylindrical one, he stopped it from rolling off a table.
Faber-Castell's second big innovation was stolen. In 1875 America's Supreme Court ruled that Faber was entitled to put rubber erasers onto the back of its pencils, although another inventor had already patented the idea. The court felt that the idea was too obvious to patent.
Since then, years of research have gone into making leads firmer and finding the type of wood that best protects them from breaking when dropped. But for scribblers, three ideas stand out. First, Faber-Castell started using water-based, environmentally friendly paints in the 1990s. Teachers and parents, who used to worry that children would swallow toxins while chewing their pencils, would have preferred plain wooden ones. But children love bright colours. So Count Faber-Castell reworked his entire process to accommodate new paints without harmful chemicals. Teachers in Europe now urge parents to buy them by name.
The count's second innovation was to introduce an ergonomic triangular shape that is popular with children. His third was to add rubbery dots that keep the pencils from slipping out of sweaty little hands.
As for the future, Count Faber-Castell still sees scope for further refinement. Pencils could perhaps be made tougher, or easier on the eye. But the basic design—graphite encased in wood—is unlikely to change much in the next ten to 15 years, he says. Asked about the next 100, he laughs. That may be for another generation to decide.
Sep 16th 2010, The Economist