Maybe Pencils are Just Boring


As long-time readers know, on Fridays — like, you know, today — I do a week-in-review type of thing. Today, I want to talk about my surprise when I couldn’t find anything to talk about regarding pencils.

At some point this week, I saw a headline asking why schoolchildren in the U.S. have to use No. 2 pencils. For those outside the U.S., that’s not going to be immediately familiar to you, but don’t worry — all you need to know is that No. 2 pencils (“number two pencils”) exist, and that it is the only acceptable version for students to use. Here’s a picture of one such pencil.

The yellow 2 in the green circle tells you it’s a No. 2 pencils. Outside the United States, this is often called an “HB” pencil, and you’ll note the letters “HB” just above our yellow-on-green 2. 

I’m sure, at some point in my life, it occurred to me that if there are No. 2 pencils, there have to be (or once were) No. 1 pencil and probably No. 3 pencils, and I’m somewhat sure that at one point, I accidentally ended up with a No. 3 pencils and tried to use it at school. (The world did not end.) But if so, this was a gap in my knowledge, so when I read the headline, I went to read the story. And the explanation is kind of boring. There are, indeed, No.1 and No. 3 and even No. 4 pencils. The lower the number, the darker the mark the pencil makes. Unfortunately for teachers, older machines used to grade papers can’t pick up on marks made by pencils lighter than No. 2s, so they had to be banned. And No. 1 pencil marks tend to smudge easily, eliminating them from the list of acceptable options. That left No. 2s in a Goldilocks-like position — not too dark, not too light; they were just right. And it stuck.

It’s an okay story, but not really a great one, so I figured I’d wait until Friday to share it. But also, I wanted to talk about what didn’t happen next. 

(Oh, but first: For what it’s worth, “HB” stands for “hard black,” which describes the graphite in a more complete and straightforward way than the U.S. numbering system. “Hard” references how brittle the graphite is, which is a different and even more moring story. “Black,” though, is basically saying “this isn’t very black, but it’s black enough to be picked up by old exam-reading machines.)

Usually, when I go off exploring like this, I find a much cooler story to share. The “did you know?” genre of stories you’ll find on the Internet often have little “by the way” asides pointing to much better stories. Like — and I’m making this up on the spot — an article about how microwaves work may say, parenthetically, that “the microwave oven was created accidentally anyway” or something like that. Those cause me to pause to say “wait, really?” and send me off searching. Usually, I’ll come up with a nice little story as a result. 

But in this case, I came up empty. There was one Washington Post article (which I now can’t get back to because of a paywall, bleh) that mentioned that Great Britain once banned pencil sharpeners to stop people from overusing red cedar trees (from which pencils were made), but I couldn’t verify it. Another one made a passing reference to how early pencils were used to mark sheep, which I guess makes sense but isn’t all that interesting beyond the mere fact itself. I did find a good bonus fact — something I already knew, but whatever: architects and other such professionals tend to use octagonal or oval pencils, not cylindrical ones, so the pencils don’t roll off the table. 

So, maybe pencils are just kind of boring. I’ve written about them twice before, so it’s not a total lost cause. The first story highlights a sculptor who created masterpieces out of pencil tips. The second was in my second book, talking about how the words on the side of one creative pencil backfired. Strangely enough, that second story almost didn’t make it into the book — because of an error on my part, I omitted it when I sent in the manuscript. (My editor caught the mistake just in time.) So perhaps pencils aren’t boring and I just have bad luck with pencil trivia.

The Now I Know Week in Review

As you’ll see, there’s nothing here about pencils.

Monday: When It’s Better to Be in Fourth Place. A tale of sportsmanship.

Tuesday: The Biggest of Macs. Meet the world record Big Mac eater.

Wednesday: The Pink Hat of Fidelity. Baseball meets marraige and an unusual off-field uniform.

Thursday: The Problem With Lots of People Drinking Lots of Tea: It’s a power struggle.

And some other things you should check out:

Some long reads for the weekend.

1) “The Elvis Impersonator, the Karate Instructor, a Fridge Full of Severed Heads, and the Plot 2 Kill the President” (GQ, 38 minutes, September 2013). Apologies if I shared this before, I don’t remember. It’s quite the story, either way.

2) “The Truth Behind the Amazon Mystery Seeds” (The Atlantic, 31 minutes, July 2021). Over the last year, more than a few people claimed to have received seeds from Amazon that they didn’t order. Here’s what actually happened.

3) “Concern trolls and power grabs: Inside Big Tech’s angry, geeky, often petty war for your privacy” (Protocol, 20 minutes, July 2021). The subhead: “Inside the World Wide Web Consortium, where the world’s top engineers battle over the future of your data.”

Oh, by the way: the little metal ring that attaches a pencil to its eraser is called a “ferrule,” which etymologically means “iron collar” or “iron bracelet.”

Have a great weekend!