Mass-Produced Pencil Leaves Its Mark

By Adrienne D. Coles — June 16, 1999 3 min read
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Over the 20th century, the tests designed to measure what students know have changed like the seasons, but one thing has remained a constant: the tool necessary to record such measurement--the lead pencil.

That was not the case during the 19th century, when, in succession, one writing implement replaced another. Still, the development of written tests was hampered by the crude and impractical materials available to record and correct answers.

But by the beginning of the 1900s, the pencil had found its way into the classroom, and eventually led to a different and far simpler way of assessing students.

In earlier days, students used slates or slateboards as writing tablets in conjunction with slate pencils. Made of layered rock, the slate pencils produced scratchy writing, and, as Robert M.W. Travers notes in his book How Research Has Changed American Schools, the friction from the slate pencil on the slate surface made writing slow and clumsy.

“It was nothing like writing with a pen or [lead] pencil. It was more like scratching and not very smooth,” according to Richard Casey, an instructional designer at the Blackwell History of Education Research Museum, housed at Northern Illinois University.

While chalk was available, that kind of marker was even more cumbersome and messy to use, Casey says.

Using slates for test-taking wasn’t feasible either. Teachers could hardly store the relatively heavy tablets for later grading. Nor could students go without the slates that they used on a daily basis, Travers writes in his 1983 book.

Consequently, the preferred method of assessing students was oral examination.

With the invention and spread of the steel pen, however, the written exam gained in popularity in schools in the waning years of the 19th century. Students could write at length with the devices without having to refill the pens, but, of course, there was little room for error.

The lead pencil had been around long before, but its expense--some sold for as much as 75 cents a dozen--had kept it out of schools.

It wasn’t until 1866, when Joseph Dixon was granted a patent for his wood-planing machine at his Jersey City, N.J., company, that the mass production of pencils--132 per minute--began.

With the advent of mass production, the price of the pencil dropped, with some selling for as little as a penny apiece.

Demand for pencils became fairly steady, says Henry Petroski, the author of The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance and a civil engineering and history professor at Duke University.

By the 1870s, it was estimated that more than 20 million pencils were being sold in the United States each year.

A 1903 circular advertised the penny pencil--one with an eraser built into the end. It was popular, but not with educators. Teachers didn’t like the idea of erasers on pencils, Petroski says, because they thought that feature would encourage students to be careless.

But the no-frills penny pencil--which was made with bare wood and lacked the typical yellow paint and varnish--had the great virtue of affordability.

Fusing New and Old

In 1929, researchers at the University of Iowa began to develop the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. By the next decade, researchers fused a new technology--the electronic answer-sheet scanner--with an old technology, the pencil.

“The pencil revolutionized the ability to grade tests automatically,” Petroski says.

An electronic-scoring machine went on the market in the late ‘30s.

Hand-scoring gave way to optical readers that could detect the graphite content the pencil left. The popularity of answer sheets soared in the late 1950s, however, with the invention of a far speedier model that came out of the University of Iowa.

“This technology gave birth to the standardized test,” says Larry Ganzell, the vice president of sales administration at the Scantron Corp., a manufacturer of electronic-answer forms.

“The number-two pencil was dark enough for teachers to read but light enough for students to erase,” Ganzell says.

And the answer sheets allowed a high volume of tests to be given and graded in a timely manner.

Thus was born an inexpensive way to measure the performance of thousands of students, something that could not have been done without the pencil.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 1999 edition of Education Week as Mass-Produced Pencil Leaves Its Mark


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