Trivia

Hard

The Pencil Grading Scale (Which Labels Pencils #1-4) Was Invented By?

Henry David Thoreau
Benjamin Franklin
Andrew Johnson
Mark Twain
A June 1856 photograph of Henry David Thoreau.
Benjamin D. Maxham/Wikimedia

Answer: Henry David Thoreau

It is an often repeated tale that, as a young man, the famed American writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau quit his job at a pencil factory by announcing: “That I have now made the perfect pencil, so why make any more!” Without context, this tale seems whimsical and paints Thoreau as one of those artistic types that would quit their job to go write essays by a pond (which, in fairness, he did).

The context of the statement, however, is quite important. Thoreau wasn’t working for a summer at a pencil factory and giving his boss a flippant remark while on his way out the door. Thoreau was the son of a pencil maker, John Thoreau, and as a young man he not only worked in the family business, but also revolutionized the industry.

The graphite deposits in New Hampshire, where his father’s business was based, was of poor quality and made for poor quality pencils. Thoreau rediscovered an old technique for using clay as a binder that turned the soft New Hampshire graphite into a firm pencil lead. These clay/graphite mixtures were numbered 1 through 4 based on their hardness, giving us the now ubiquitous #2 pencil that all U.S. students are instructed to use on standardized tests.

In addition to his clever use of clay, Thoreau also invented a method for more effectively inserting lead into the pencil. All told, Thoreau wasn’t making a glib comment when he proclaimed he’d made the perfect pencil and was ready to move on with his life and do other things, he was making a statement of fact that he had no more left to give to the pencil industry.

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