Q: If pencil leads have actually been graphite since the mid 1500s (when graphite was discovered to leave a darker mark than lead) why are they still called leads?
A: Because when graphite was discovered, it was initially thought to be a darker form of carbon and named Plumbargo. (The Latin word for lead is plumbum.) The name graphite (“writing stone”) was coined by Abraham Gottlob Werner in 1789. He attempted to clear the confusion of what molybdena, plumbago and blacklead actually are after Carl Wilhelm Scheele in 1778 proved that there are at least three different minerals.
While lead has hasn’t been used for writing since antiquity, lead poisoning from pencils was not uncommon because until the middle of the 1950s, the paint used for the outer coating may have contained high concentrations of lead which could be ingested if a person were to chew on the pencil. (I was admitedly a junior high school pencil chewer…)
If you use mechanical pencils, do you have a favorite lead? I prefer the Pentel Hi-Polymers shown above.