Test Scoring. Mark Sheet. Exam Grade. They all mean the same thing, but what do they mean? In the 1930s, IBM developed a scanning machine for standardized tests, however, the marks could only be read using a special graphite that was highly conductive. So IBM had pencils made, and the General Pencil Co. was the one who made them. The IBM pencils are no longer made, but the Test Scoring pencil lives on. These days, we don't need the special graphite mixture, and most of the pencils advertised as "good for testing" are just normal pencils. But it's a neat bit of pencil history and they're still around today, so let's take a look. For a more detailed look into the history of these pencils, check out Caroline Weaver's book Pencil Perfect.
For this series, I'm pitting 2 pencils against each other each day. I set it up this way:
Stabilo Exam Grade HB vs Pelikan Exam Standard 2B (Germany)
Tombow Mono Mark Sheet HB vs Mitsubishi Mark Sheet HB (Japan)
Musgrave Test Scoring 100 vs General's Test Scoring 580 (USA)
IBM Electrographic vs Dixon Sense-a-Mark (vintage)
Each of the winners will then be pitted against each other at the end of the week and one victor will emerge! I'll be judging on these criteria:
- Looks & Handfeel
- Mark Darkness
- Point Retention
- Erasability (for the pencils without erasers, I'll be using the Pentel Clic eraser and the Pentel Hi-Polymer eraser)
I will be filling out one 100 bubble test sheet and doing a writing test. You have one hour, students...let's begin.
Choosing a pencil to go up against the original IBM Electrographic was hard. There were a few factors at play; I'm not really a vintage pencil collector, so I didn't have much of the MANY options there were in this time period. It seems nearly every company had their version of a Test Scoring pencil. See this Fred's Pencils post for pictures of a few from the list. The availability of some of these is not within the budget I had for this series. When I decided on the Dixon, however, I was worried that my bias against the current, FILA-owned Dixon would sway me in this review. I also worried about being swayed by the legend of the IBM. But I'm happy to say that, while I expected the following outcome, the Dixon surprised me.
LOOKS & HANDFEEL
I love the look of vintage pencils. I love anything old, really, and old pencils are what brought me into pencils. The Dixon is hex and a dark blue. It's got a simple, yet not standard, ferrule. The imprint is simple and white. The IBM I tested was round and black. There are hex versions of the black one, and there are early versions of the pencil that were dark blue. The imprint is also white, in the IBM type. It's hard to choose for me here, each pencil has different things I like about the looks, but the round pencil is more comfortable to write with.
I found these to be very similar, and neither one to be as dark as any of the modern test scoring pencils, especially in writing tests. The IBM writes slightly, and I mean very slightly, darker than the Dixon, but they both have a bit of a grayish tone. It's not very prevalent in pictures, but to my eye, I found this to be the case. They both write more smoothly than a regular #2 from the time period, and when compared to something like a vintage Mirado or Ticonderoga, they're downright dark. But they're really too similar to see a difference.
As shown in the pictures below, the slight edge goes to the IBM, which wins this category while matching the darkness and line color laid down by the Dixon. In writing tests, the Dixon seemed to flatten quicker when writing without rotating the pencil.
Both erase just fine, but the IBM does come off a bit more cleanly than the Dixon. When erasing with the Pentel Hi-Polymer, it's a wash, but when erasing with the Pentel Clic, the IBM came off easier than the Dixon. I didn't use the attached erasers because they had dried out due to their age.
These pencils were made at the height of pencil making in the US, when there were dozens of companies here, trying to outdo one another. The Dixon is a good pencil and surprised me. I thought the IBM would win hands-down. I still feel that the IBM is the better of the two in this category. I have a dozen of the IBMs and not one of them is off-center. Of the few Dixon I have, one was so off-center I couldn't even think about using it for this test, or anything else for that matter.
I thought the IBM, the original, would run away with this one. But the Dixon is a great pencil. There is a part of me that tends to forget that they were once a powerhouse of American pencil making, with all the talk of Eberhard Faber as being THE pencil fan's pencil brand, and my dislike of vintage Ticonderogas. But the Sense-a-Mark held its own against the IBM, and though it did not win, it's no slouch.
Next up: The final roundup!