IBM Electrographic pencil

IBM Electrographic pencil

Today we have another special treat for pencil talk readers.

The IBM Electrographic is among the most sought after and collectable modern pencils, along with the Blackwing 602 and Blackfeet Indian. It might be the rarest of the three, though one never knows what warehouse stockpiles of pencils may exist.

The pencil was just a small component of a much larger enterprise – IBM’s development of Mark Sense technology. The central idea is the automated (machine) reading of human made marks in a variety of settings, though standardized tests and utility bills seem to have been the most well known areas.

IBM Electrographic pencil

As well as making a black mark, graphite makes a luminescent and electrically conductive mark. That is the basis of the technology. Some readers may have more to contribute in this area, which I would welcome, but I’ll focus here on the pencil. Some links below are suggestions for further reading on the larger technology.

The pencil is round, and finished in black. It has a silver coloured ferrule, and dark pink eraser. The eraser is predictably not useful after several years.

IBM Electrographic pencil

The pencil is embossed with an appropriate font in white, “IBM Electrographic”.

The pencil sharpens easily, and reveals a nice reddish cedar.

The pencil writes exceptionally well. Not just in the way some pencils are a gradient or two smoother or softer than others – there is something unusual in the lead formula which results in an incredibly smooth line. The line also seems much more luminescent or shiny than a regular pencil mark.

The lead does crumble a bit while writing. In outdoor sunlight, the lines seem more shiny than black.

IBM Electrographic pencil

After trying out the pencil, I have no doubt that those proclaiming that there is something special about the IBM Electrograph are correct. Though the pencils may have been created for standardized tests, there is no wonder about why a larger audience of writers quickly adopted them.

The IBM Electrograph is a standout pencil.

Further reading:

IBM 1231 Optical Mark Page Reader (ibm1130.com)

Mark sense (Wikipedia)

IBM 805 Test Scoring Machine (IBM Archives)

Optical mark recognition (Wikipedia)

42 Replies to “IBM Electrographic pencil”

  1. Though the IBM Electrograph may be gone, the Musgrave Test Scoring pencil is still available. (See Pencilthings.com—no affiliation, just a satisfied customer!) It has all of the qualities that you describe of the IBM pencil, especially the softness and richness of line, shiny black.

  2. I do believe this is the highest most unreserved praise you’ve lavished on any candidate for review at PencilTalk. I think I can offer some support for your assertion that “…graphite makes a luminescent and conductive mark.” I was rather gobsmacked by what is shown here:

    http://www.wisebread.com/broken-down-turn-your-pencil-into-a-flashlight

    Also, some iteration of the IBM Electrograph pencil apparently is still available through vendors that supply various government entities. I don’t know if the supply chain is closed to the general public, I haven’t yet tried to place an order. If I am not mistaken, the Electrographics I’ve seen on these (scant handful of) sites have a natural unpainted woodgrain finish, not IBM’s classic black. I’ll see if I can find a link and post it later.

  3. Adair, thanks for pointing out the Musgrave Test Scoring pencil. I will have to try it out.

    That reminds me – I received a recent email enquiry about the retail availability of “test” pencils. Has anyone seen a “test” pencil (any brand) at a brick and mortar retailer?

    Barrel, thanks for your comment. I think the pencil is exceptional in a very particular way, though I can imagine that the high luminescence would be a problem for some uses.

    The idea that the pencil continues today in another form is most interesting.

  4. General’s also has a #580 Test Scoring pencil, but it only appears to be available through their online store, and not at all listed elsewhere on their website.

    The “More Info” button says more of the usual Scantron stuff.

    Speaking of electrical properties, someone apparently went through the trouble of measuring the resistance of a few pencils, back when you could modify old Athlon processors by drawing a trace with pencil lead (which you can’t do anymore, obviously, but the technique still sees some use).

  5. Although I have found two vendors selling a so-called “Electrographic Test Pencil”, nowhere in the description does it say that the item is made for or by IBM. Safina Office and ServMart apparently sell the same Electrographic Test Pencil (ServMart’s photograph is very poor) which Safina describes as “Black, use on punch cards and test forms read by IBM…” and ServMart as “Black, length: 6 3/4 (inches). Use on punch cards and test forms read by IBM and other electronic scoring equipment. Lead is highly conductive black graphite encased in wood.” This pencil appears to be hexagonal with a light brown finish, possibly natural woodgrain, also with a thin light-colored stripe separating the body of the pencil from the black endcaps.

  6. Please can you tell me where I may get the IBM Electrographic pencils. I am elderly, and they work just fine for crafts. I have one about three inches long, and cannot find them Thank you. Dorothy

  7. I am an employer of LC Industries Servmart and we do carry the Electrographic Test Pencil. They haven’t sold since I have been working here. They look like a really cool pencil, but I would have to say that I’m not much on pencils either.

  8. I have several dozen IBM Electrographic pencils if any one is interested in obtaining them.

  9. Very interesting Pencil, even the most biggest and important Computer company in the world did need a Pencil. Once I´ve read this post I want to try it sometime.

    When I heard about an IBM Pencil I immediately thought that It´s a very special Pencil for a very special end user or It was made for those test where you fill little circles with a #2HB Pencil, now I know the generic name for those test were given by Scantron .

    When I read the words “Electrographic Test Pencil” in this post I remembered some old Eagle Turquoise Pencils http://www.penciltalk.org/2007/05/prismacolor-turquoise-pencil, they were imprinted -ELECTRONIC LEAD- so the thought that crossed my mind was “Maybe the Turquoise Pencil is for Scantron Test”. so I reach further and I find that ELECTRONIC word in this Pencil was not used in the sense of today Electronics but meaning: of or relating to electrons; and It´s related to its size, “GRAPHITE REFINED TO A 1/25,000TH OF AN INCH!-OR 1.016 µm MICROMETRES”, according to vintage Advertising.

  10. It could also be possible that “electronic” refers to electronically produced, i.e. synthetic graphite. – As far as I know A.W. Faber were the first to offer pencils with synthetic graphite at the beginning of the 20th century, starting a controversy amongst experts about the quality and the suitability of it for pencils.

  11. @ Gunter,I understand that Chemical engineering has synthesized graphite.
    As far as I know the polymer is used to replace clay on the mixture to give strength to lead but the graphite remains natural. So I have these questions. Is syntetic graphite different from polymer graphite? and Is it possible a complete synthetic lead, i.e. polymer rather than clay and synthetic graphite rather than natural graphite?

  12. Yes, I remember these well. In college, we were given these for tests, and occasionally tried to carry them off after the exam because they wrote so well. I still have a couple of 4″ – 6″ pencils from 30 years ago….

  13. This message is directed to Dick Lieb or any other people with extra IBM Electrographic Pencils:
    Hello,
    My name is Neil Allen and I am thirteen years of age and a drummer. You can see me on youtube at http://www.youtube.com/user/rennieallen.
    Anyway,I would be very interested in obtaining any IBM Electrographic Pencils because I would like to case them and preserve them for years to come.
    I am a collector of all sorts of things. I have a Typewriter, Oil lamp, Rotary Telephone(And yes I use it as my regular phone) and many other antique things.
    So if anyone would be generous enough to give me any IBM Electrographic Pencils please contact me at neil.alexander.allen@gmail.com and I will work something out with you.
    And I promise that if I obtain any IBM Electrographic Pencils, I will preserve them with the highest care.

    Sincerely,
    Neil A. Allen

  14. ik ben op zoek naar een potloodstifthouder voor mijn potloodstiften dik 1.01 mm. van moijn IBM ELECTROGRAPHIIC van 40 jaar geleden . wie kan me hier verder meem helpen ???? .

  15. Dear Mr Lieb,
    I would love to take you up on your offer!
    How do we go about getting in touch?
    Xavier
    Aotearoa New Zealand

  16. Mr. Lieb, do you still have some IBM Electrograhic pencils?
    Please email me, if you do have some. I have been searching for them for a long time.
    Best, Chase

  17. for the real lover:
    “IBM – Elektrographik” fountain pen, black with visible ink reservoir.
    Used at the early computer systems of Dutch Rotterdamsche Bank, nowadays Amro Bank.

  18. I’m not an expert on ferrules/erasers but I have noticed that my example of the General’s Test Scoring 580 pencil has an identical ferrule to the “Electrographic” shown above … indeed the whole pencil looks eerily similar. The writing properties described above are also evident in the ‘580’. I have hunted high and low for these 580 pencils online but none ship overseas. General’s, please consider your overseas customers.

  19. Since the Staedtler mark 2B has been mentioned here: It looks like it is now discontinued – the Staedtler Thailand website doesn’t list it any more.

  20. These were my favorite pencils as a kid in the 70s/80s. Best pencil ever! My dad loved pencils too, so he would always have these on hand. I might have a stub of one somewhere at my parents’ house. Now I will have to go look!

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