Why are pencils yellow? Why do pen caps have holes? These and other wacky facts about writing instruments

By YP Cadet Cyrus Chu

We use them almost every day, but have you ever considered the history behind the pen or pencil you use?

By YP Cadet Cyrus Chu |

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Why are pencils yellow?

The pens and pencils that we write with are so important to our every day lives, we tend to forget how much history and thought there is behind them. Here are some fun facts about the things we write with that you might not have known.

The marketing behind the yellow pencil

In 1888, the Czech company Koh-i-Noor Hardtmuth started making pencils using the best graphite sourced from China. To really sell themselves as the best, they painted their pencils yellow, which is used to be considered a royal colour. That’s because, in ancient China, only the emperor was allowed to wear yellow.

We can’t say for sure if there is a link to this colour and how successful the pencil became, but it was very popular. American pencil companies saw how well Koh-i-Noor Hardtmuth pencils were selling, so they made their pencils yellow, too. That’s why so many pencils are still yellow today.

Why there is a hole in many pen lids

Very young children have a bad tendency to put things in their mouths when they shouldn’t – like pens. The newspaper The Independent wrote, in 2016, that 100 people die in the US each year from choking on pen lids. This number used to be higher – and the reason it is not as high today is probably because pen company Bic put a large hole to the top of the lid. This means, even if the lid is accidentally swallowed, there is a bigger chance people can still breathe. Other pen companies saw that this was a good idea, so they added a hole to their lids, too.

Why do pen caps have holes in them?
Photo: Shutterstock

There is a pen that went to the moon

Normal pens can’t be used in space, because gravity (the force that stops us from floating up off the Earth) pushes the ink down the pen. Pencils are no longer used in space either, because the graphite (the bit that makes marks on the page) in pencils can cause damage to machinery. Paul Fisher, an American inventor, came up with a solution: the Fisher Space Pen. This pen is filled with a gas called nitrogen, which pushes ink out without gravity. This came in very handy when computers weren’t commonly used in space.

The US space agency, Nasa, was one of the companies that bought the Fisher Space Pen. It was used by the people who went into space on the Apollo missions. To this day, Fisher continues to market this pen as the pen that went to the Moon.

You can use the Fisher Space Pen in a rocket ship.
Photo: Handout

The pen made by blind people

You might not think that people who cannot see very well would have anything to do with pens or pencils, but that’s not the case. One of the pens that is most commonly used by the US government is made by blind people, including ones made by the Industries of the Blind corporation in the US state of North Carolina, where employees put together and package the pens.

Blind employees put together and package these pens.
Photo: Handout

Before the biro ...

The modern biro was invented in 1941 by a news editor in Hungary called László Bíró. Before this, a commonly used pen was the fountain pen – in which wet ink flows from a cartridge placed inside the pen. Did you know that, on October 30, 1888, a patent for a pen very much like the ballpoint we use today was given to an American man called John J Loud? He was trying to make a writing instrument that could be used to write on things like wood or leather. It couldn’t be used to write on paper, though, so it wasn’t very popular – paving the way for Bíró more than 50 years on.

What preceded the biro pen?
Photo: Shutterstock

Edited by Ginny Wong

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