What Makes #2 Pencils So Special?

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Most of us pick up pencils—and lose them—without giving them a second thought. Pencils are a bit more interesting than you might, think, though. Here are a few not-so-frequently asked questions about everyone's second-favorite writing implements, including the story of a time when pencil sharpeners were illegal.

WHAT MAKES #2 PENCILS SO SPECIAL?

When it comes to pencils, #2s are actually the absolute middle of the road. While we number our various grades of pencils in the U.S., the rest of the world uses a system of numbers and letters to describe how hard and how black a pencil's lead is. An American #2 pencil (roughly) corresponds to an HB pencil on the rest of the world's scale. The lead is not too dark and not too light, and it's not too hard or too soft.

Pencils numbered higher than 2 have harder leads and are often used by engineers, architects, and draftsmen because of their harder points. The underlying logic here is that the harder point gives the user greater control of the lead. You'll find softer leads in pencils numbered below 2, which are popular with artists because they can help create a wider spectrum of tones than one would achieve by sticking solely to a #2 pencil.

ACK! I USED A #3 PENCIL ON THE SAT! IS MY LIFE OVER?

A student takes a test with a pencil
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No ... but you're probably destined for a life of hard labor rather than college. No, not really. It's hard to get a straight answer on this question, but there are quite a few reports from people online who messed up by using the wrong grade of pencil and still did just fine on their SATs. The general consensus seems to be that the SAT's scanners will read a #3 pencil's mark just the same as it would read one from a #2 pencil. Some people do feel, however, that the harder lead in a #3 pencil makes erasing tougher and ups the chances that a stray smudge or incompletely erased mark will be read by the scanner and end up hurting your score. So it's probably best to err on the safe side and double-check your pencil type before heading into the exam.

IF THE REST OF THE WORLD USES A SYSTEM OF NUMBERS AND LETTERS TO GRADE PENCILS, WHY DO WE USE JUST NUMBERS?

Thank Henry David Thoreau and his old man. When graphite was discovered in New Hampshire during the 1820s, John Thoreau and his brother-in-law Charles Dunbar built their own pencil factory. The only problem was that New Hampshire graphite was pretty crummy; it smeared and made for pretty poor pencils.

Enter a young Henry David Thoreau. Before he wrote about civil disobedience and spent his time at Walden Pond, he worked at the family pencil company. Thoreau perfected a process of using clay as a binder to make the soft, loose graphite hard and suitable for pencils. Suddenly the New England graphite could be used to make a pencil that didn't leave giant smears, and the Thoreaus' business took off. By the middle of the 19th century, the Thoreaus were selling pencils with varying graphite hardness, which they numbered one through four.

IF THE CENTER OF THE PENCIL HAS BEEN MADE OF GRAPHITE FOR SO LONG, WHY DO WE CALL IT "LEAD"?

Photo of the tip of a pencil
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Blame shoddy 16th century chemistry for this one. When a giant graphite deposit was found in England during the 16th century, it eventually found a use as a writing implement. However, early chemists weren't exactly sure what the useful gray substance actually was. They assumed it was some sort of lead, and the term "pencil lead" came into use—even though there wasn't any lead involved.

WHY ARE PENCILS PAINTED YELLOW?

According to most stories, our pencils are yellow as a result of a clever marketing gimmick. In 1889, the Hardtmuth company of Austria introduced a new line of fancy pencils at the World's Fair in Paris. The pencils were named Koh-i-Noor after a famed Indian diamond, and they contained the world's finest graphite from the Far East. They were also painted yellow, which was unusual at the time.

Some historians claim that the Austrian company painted their pencils yellow as a subtle nod to the yellow on the flag of Austria-Hungary. Others claim the yellow was an even subtler nod to the Far Eastern graphite in the pencils; the color yellow is associated with royalty in China. In either case, the new yellow pencils were a hit, and soon other companies began painting their own wares yellow in an attempt to swipe some of Hardtmuth's business.

DOES THE LITTLE METAL BAND THAT HOLDS THE ERASER ON THE PENCIL HAVE A NAME?

A pencil eraser
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It sure does. It's called a ferrule, a combination of the Latin words viriola ("small bracelet") and ferrum ("iron").

HAVE PENCIL ERASERS GIVEN US ANY COMMON WORDS?

You bet. According to records from the 18th century, the elastic substance from tropical plants got its name thanks to its common use of being rubbed over pencil marks to erase them. Since using this substance as an eraser required a lot of rubbing, people began calling it rubber. Another name for rubber from the same era that didn't catch on quite as well was lead-eater

WHEN WAS IT ILLEGAL TO OWN A PENCIL SHARPENER?

If you owned a pencil sharpener in early 20th century England, you had a hot little piece of contraband. At the time, the supply of the red cedar that had historically been used in pencils was getting perilously low, so the government briefly outlawed pencil sharpeners in order to limit waste from overzealous sharpening. Eventually the mechanical pencil and the discovery of incense-cedar's usefulness in making pencils solved this problem, and pencil sharpeners became street legal once again. Phew!

In What Field Was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a Doctor?

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Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Martin Luther King Jr. earned a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. He’d previously earned a Bachelor of Arts from Morehouse College and a Bachelor of Divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary. His dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” examined the two religious philosophers’ views of God in comparison to each other, and to King’s own concept of a "knowable and personal" God.

In 1989, some three decades after King had earned his doctorate, archivists working with The Martin Luther King Papers Project discovered that King’s dissertation suffered from what they called a “problematic use of sources.” King, they learned, had taken a large amount of material verbatim from other scholars and sources and used it in his work without full or proper attribution, and sometimes no attribution at all.

In 1991, a Boston University investigatory committee concluded that King had indeed plagiarized parts of his dissertation, but found that it was “impractical to reach, on the available evidence, any conclusions about Dr. King's reasons for failing to attribute some, but not all, of his sources.” That is, it could have been anything from malicious intent to simple forgetfulness—no one can determine for sure today. They did not recommend a posthumous revocation of his degree, but instead suggested that a letter be attached to the dissertation in the university library noting the passages lacked quotations and citations.

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Who Is 'The Real McCoy'?

Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Inventor Elijah McCoy is may or may not be "The Real McCoy."
Ypsilanti Historical Society, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After taking a cool, carbonated sip of champagne from the Champagne region of France, you might say, “Ah, now that’s the real McCoy.” Sparkling wine from anywhere else is technically just sparkling wine.

The phrase “the real McCoy,” which can be used to describe any genuine version of something, has several possible origin stories. And while none of them mention champagne, a few do involve other types of alcohol.

According to HowStuffWorks, the earliest known recorded instance of the saying was an 1856 reference to whisky in the Scottish National Dictionary—"A drappie [drop] o' the real MacKay”—and by 1870, a pair of whisky distillers by the name of McKay had adopted the slogan “the real McKay” for their products. As the theory goes, the phrase made its long journey across the pond, where it eventually evolved into the Americanized “McCoy.”

Another theory suggests “the real McCoy” originated in the United States during Prohibition. In 1920, Florida-based rum runner Bill McCoy was the first enterprising individual to stock a ship with alcohol in the Caribbean, sail to New York, and idle at least three miles offshore, where he could sell his wares legally in what was then considered international waters. Since McCoy didn’t water down his alcohol with substances like prune juice, wood alcohol, and even turpentine, people believe his customers started calling his top-notch product “the real McCoy.” There’s no definitive proof that this origin story is true, but The Real McCoy rum distillery was founded on the notion.

There are also a couple other leading theories that have nothing to do with alcohol. In 1872, inventor Elijah McCoy patented a self-regulating machine that lubricated parts of a steam engine without the need for manual maintenance, allowing trains to run continuously for much longer distances. According to Snopes, the invention’s success spawned a plethora of poor-quality imitations, which led railroad personnel to refer to McCoy’s machines as “the real McCoy.”

Elijah McCoy’s invention modernized the transportation industry, but he wasn’t the only 19th-century McCoy who packed a punch. The other was welterweight champion Norman Selby, better known as Kid McCoy. In one story, McCoy decked a drunken bar patron to prove that he really was the famous boxer, prompting others to christen him “the real McCoy.” In another, his alleged penchant for throwing fights caused the press to start calling him “the real McCoy” to acknowledge when he was actually trying to win. And yet another simply suggests that the boxer’s popularity birthed so many McCoy-wannabes that Selby started to specify that he was, in fact, the real McCoy.

So which “the real McCoy” origin story is the real McCoy? The 1856 Scottish mention of “the real MacKay” came before Elijah McCoy’s railroad invention, Kid McCoy’s boxing career, and Bill McCoy’s rum-running escapades, but it’s possible that the phrase just gained popularity in different spheres at different times.

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