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The Surprisingly Interesting History of the #2 Pencil

When test day rolls around, it’s important to make sure you have everything you need. This includes your ticket and photo ID, a bottle of water, a snack, a calculator, and a few trusty #2 pencils.

“But why ‘#2,’ Mike?” you may ask. “All I ever see is #2 pencils. Can I even get a #1 pencil, or a #5, or a #3.1415927? What’s the difference, anyway? Please enlighten me, o wise tutor!”

Wonder no more, my friends, for I shall educate you on the surprisingly interesting history of the humble, useful, and indispensable #2 pencil. (No, seriously: I spent way more time down the rabbit hole of YouTube videos about pencils while researching this post than I ever expected.)

Why is it called a #2 pencil?

The numbers are a measure of the hardness of the lead (graphite, actually, but we’ll get to that). Higher numbers indicate a harder lead, which gives you a finer point and crisper lines. Lower numbers indicate a softer lead, which is good for shading. #2 is the Goldilocks of pencils: not too hard, not too soft, and good for pretty much all of your pencil needs. Unless you’re an artist (artists like using different lead numbers for different techniques), you may well go your entire life using nothing but a #2.

Outside of the US, the labels are different but the idea is the same. When test day comes around, if you are completely unable to find a #2 pencil but you can find the German pencil set that an aunt gave you for your birthday (not the most likely scenario, I know, but work with me here), what you’re looking for is a pencil labeled “HB.”

Why is a pencil graphite called lead?

So what about that graphite thing I mentioned earlier? Well, it turns out pencils don’t actually contain the metal lead, which is probably for the best, because lead poisoning is a thing. The first graphite deposit was discovered in England in the 16th century. No one knew what this mysterious stuff was, but their best guess was that it was some form of lead, so they called it “black lead” and began making primitive pencils out of it. Early pencils were basically just pieces of graphite with string wrapped around them (artists still use those, too).

A brief history of the pencil

Since then, pencil technology has come a long way. In the 18th century, a Frenchman named Nicolas-Jacques Conté developed a way of mixing graphite with clay. Graphite is very brittle, and Conté’s method for mixing it with clay helps it become much more durable without losing its ability to mark paper. The different numbers on pencils indicate how much clay is mixed with the graphite — the more clay, the higher the number and the harder the “lead.” The process was brought to America (or maybe invented independently; the records are a little sketchy) by none other than author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau. Turns out his family owned a pencil factory.

But that wasn’t the end of pencil innovations. In 1858, Hymen L. Lipman filed the first patent for a snazzy new pencil design that had an eraser attached to one end. And that yellow color that we all know and love debuted on a pencil that was a big hit at the 1889 World’s Fair. It was such a big hit, in fact, that soon every pencil maker started painting the outside of their pencils the same shade of yellow.

Why is the #2 pencil the standard for tests?

So why does this matter so much when it comes to standardized tests? The scantron that grades answer sheets has an optical sensor that can tell where the paper is light and where it is dark. A higher number, harder lead might not make a mark dark enough for the scantron to pick up. And softer lead tends to smudge, which means you might leave stray marks on the page that the scantron will interpret as a wrong answer. You’d probably be fine either way, but better to just use a #2 and not worry about it.

And if you’re like me and ever wondered how the heck they get the lead in there at all, it’s probably easier just to go check out one of those YouTube videos I mentioned.

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