Did you know that March 30 is National Pencil Day? Why shouldn’t we celebrate the pencil? Anyone writing the history of education in America would be wise to include a long, loving chapter in praise of the writing implement synonymous with the SAT and ACT. Anywhere students huddle over a Scantron form, you will find #2 pencils and plenty of them… at least for now! The ubiquity of this unassuming tool belies the elegance and perfection of its form and function.
How the basic wooden pencil became such a valuable and useful writing implement is reviewed in a brilliant article in Popular Mechanics, The Write Stuff How the Humble Pencil Conquered the World. This lavish account of the pencil’s origins and ascendancy reveals some fascinating facts:
- The word “pencil” is derived from pencillum, Latin for “a fine brush.”
- The crystalline carbon substance we know as graphite was first discovered under a tree in England in the 16th century.
- Lead was previously used for writing, but since graphite made a darker mark on paper than lead, it came to be called black lead.
- The term “graphite“–derived from the Greek term graphein, meaning “to write”–wasn’t coined until the 19th century.
- In the 17th century, an English woodworker first came up with the idea of enclosing black lead in wood. The new casing, probably cedar, could be sharpened with a knife as the black lead shortened.
- Graphite became very valuable because it was also used to make cannonballs.
- The process of producing superior pencils by replacing a pure stick of graphite with a mixture of ground graphite and clay was discovered in the late 18th century by scientist and military commander Nicolas-Jacques Conté. We still use Conté’s graphite-clay mixture idea today.
- Until the 18th century, people used old bread crumbs to remove graphite marks from paper. Then English minister and discoverer of oxygen Joseph Priestly noticed that natural rubber was much better at picking up graphite particles. Thus was born the eraser.
- Henry David Thoreau, of Walden fame, came from a pencil-making family. He introduced a slew of innovations, including a device that could drill a hole down through the pencil lengthwise so the lead could slide inside. He probably also used his family’s pencils to write parts of his most famous works.
The illustrious history of the pencil includes many more captivating twists, from how the Joseph Dixon Crucible Company became America’s leading manufacturer of wooden pencils to who first thought to glue a small piece of rubber to the end of a pencil. Of course, teachers like me are most focused on how a certain grade of graphite became synonymous with testing…
What is a #2 pencil and why are they mandatory on standardized tests?
Mixing graphite with clay allows manufacturers to control the hardness of the lead and darkness of the mark. European and Asian countries use a letter-based approach to classify pencils, but, in the United States, we classify them numerically. The #2 pencil possesses the perfect balance, strong but not smudgy. A mark from a #1 pencil might smear when being scored in a Scantron machine, but anything higher than a #2 might be too light for the scanner to read.
This explanation also helps understand why mechanical pencils are not permitted on the SAT or ACT. Pencil refills are sold in different widths, leading to varying levels of hardness and blackness. If you want to be #1 on test day, be sure to pack your trust #2s. And don’t forget a quality eraser!