The first book to illustrate a pencil was published in the 16th century, and its author was more interested in the properties of the lead than the implement itself. On Fossil Objects (De Rerum Fossilium Lapidum et Gemmarum Maxime, Figuris et Similitudinibus Liber) (1565) by Conrad Gessner was also the first book to systematically illustrate fossils, with basic woodcuts of ammonites and crinoids accompanying his Latin text.
The book by the Swiss naturalist was digitized this month by the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) from the collection of the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History at Smithsonian Libraries. BHL has over 99,000 titles at its online archive, but On Fossil Objects was an especially fragile publication to add, involving a slow process at the Smithsonian’s in-house scanning center. This week, coinciding with today’s National Fossil Day, BHL is celebrating all its fossil-related resources through online content and highlighted digitizations.
Gessner is now better-known for his Historia Animalium, influential in early zoology (the quadruped volume and marine volume are both on BHL), and On Fossil Objects was intended to introduce a greater work on prehistoric life. Alas, as Gessner was a denizen of the 16th century when the plague was rampant in Europe, he was taken by the Black Death the year of its publishing. Leslie K. Overstreet, curator of natural history rare books at Smithsonian Libraries, explained the significance of Gessner’s final book to Hyperallergic:
Gessner is a giant among the naturalists of the Renaissance, and his works laid the foundation for the development of the modern sciences. His last publication, On Fossil Objects, represents a major milestone in the progression of fossil research. It is the first published work on fossils to systematically use illustrations, and Gessner successfully recognized the resemblance between many of his fossils and living organisms. During the 16th century, it was commonly believed that fossils were stones formed in the Earth rather than the remains of living objects, and the word “fossil” was used to describe anything dug up from the ground, including inorganic materials like minerals. The organic nature of fossils would not be definitively resolved until more than two centuries after the publication of On Fossil Objects.
Overstreet added that the publication is a “personal favorite” as it “includes the first published illustration and description of a pencil, which seems to have been developed during the years immediately preceding this work. I think Gessner is a true librarian’s hero for popularizing the pencil.” The pencil in Gessner’s woodcut is rudimentary in its design compared to contemporary writing implements, yet we can still recognize it as a pencil. A stylus is topped with a knob that could be attached to a field sketchbook, as demonstrated in another illustration, with lead embedded at the other end.
As Henry Petroski writes in The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance (1990), to Gessner “it was not the already familiar knob that was really remarkable, but the marking substance inserted in the business end of the tube, thus eliminating the need for any specially prepared surface on which to write or sketch.” In a book about stone and rock fossils and their mineral properties, he inadvertently through his geological interest preserved the 16th-century ancestor of today’s pencil.
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