Back in the 1980s, the only way to do genealogical research was to visit a bricks-and-mortar research library or museum, and to hold books and manuscripts in your hands and read them in person. It was either that, or get microfilm shipped to your local public or university library by interlibrary loan. That was the old analogue method, when cut-and-paste meant just that, scissors and glue and scotch tape, and lots of typing on a typewriter. Patent research was done the same way, except you had to go to your closest patent depository library to do your research, unless you lived closer to the USPTO in Washington DC, and now also in Arlington.
Back then, I was making plans to go down south to the States to visit a patent depository library to research all the fountain pen and mechanical pencil and ink bottle and inkwell patents, but it would have taken months of research and lots of resources that I didn’t have, so I put my plans on a shelf for another day. But then in September 1993, I discovered the rudimentary index list of US patents from 1845 to 1910 in the microfilm of The Scientific American. After the end of 1910, the patent list was silently and unspokenly eliminated from the magazine. There’s an article titled “An Address To Our Readers” in the Sci. Am. on Jan 7, 1911, p.24, with a statement of the new directions for the Sci. Am., in which the US patents are not even mentioned once. In fact, the editorial uses the word “invention” three times, but the patents are conspicuous by their absence. I also corresponded with a patent official in the USPTO and got a hardcopy of an index of all the patents back to 1790, from which I had to glean all the pen patents by “scanning” and “searching” and “optically recognizing” them with my eyeballs. That was the way it was back in the beginning, just at the start of my search. [What used to be available only on microfilm is now available on Hathi Trust, and the links to all the volumes of Sci. Am. are all available in this blog post.]
Around the end of September 1993, when I finished putting together my list, it hit me with a lightning bolt of realization that one of the consequences of creating a chronological list of patents is that I could quantify the patents by year and graph the total numbers of pens-per-year. That was one of the first things I did with all the data I collected in 1993. It’s astounding how closely the numbers of patents, and the ups and downs of the graphs, coincide perfectly with US and world history and politics, the economy, geological and weather phenomena, and things such as volcanic eruptions. The pen graph also shows how important the stylograph patents are to the total number of pen patents in the ten-year period when they were first introduced, what I have come to call the Stylographic Decade, from 1875-85. Not only could I graph the yearly totals of the fountain pen patents, but I could compare this graph against the graph of the yearly totals of the inkwells. It’s gratifying to see the fountain pen line rise as the inkwell line declines. I later also collected the Canadian patents from 1859 to 1911, the UK patents from 1771 to 1901, and the French patents from 1707 to 1901.
I showed my list to various people at pen shows to try to get them interested in completing it, but no one else wanted to do the work of extracting the data. Oh, don’t get me wrong. They wanted the info, and they saw the potential, but they didn’t want to do the work. So anyway, the list sat until December 2000. The USPTO went online around 1998, and I checked it out then, but I was discouraged by the arcane system, and I didn’t notice whether the number-search function was activated, yet. In any case, David Glass, a collector and researcher of Conklin pens, posted on Zoss on Dec 15, 2000 that the USPTO had a patent number search window on their website, but I didn’t read the message until about Dec 27, and I didn’t check out the website until Jan 4, 2001, after the new year. I blitzed through all the patents from 1790 to 1910 between January and September that year. If you can believe it, I finished the analogue, hand-written retrieval of information on June 26, and I finished all the type-written inputting into my database the day after Sept 11, 2001. And then I crashed. I was suffering from post partum depression like you wouldn’t believe. I didn’t have anything to do anymore, so I did nothing at all until Oct 1, when I slowly started to get back into the database and to clean it up.
On June 10, 2001, when I got to the patents from 1896, I found this article in Sci. Am., “The Progress Of Invention During The Past Fifty Years”, July 25, 1896, pp.82-83. That was the year of the 50th anniversary to the magazine, and the whole issue was devoted to their celebration, but this article included a graph of all the inventions-per-year from 1846 to 1896, and the author wrote something that goaded me into getting back into the graphs and creating more of them.
It is interesting to observe how closely the grant of patents and the prosperity of the country are related. Referring to scaled diagram No. 2, the zigzag line marks the increase or decrease in the patents issued from year to year. We note the depression of the civil war, followed by the rapid reaction and growth of reconstruction. Again the depression caused by the financial panic of 1873, and again in 1876, the unsettled and dangerous condition of politics incident to the contested presidential election. This was followed by another wave of prosperity, indented with depressions in the presidential election years, while the stringency of the times from 1890 to 1894 shows a marked influence in the corresponding depression in the line, all of which indicates a most sympathetic relation.Along the way, while reading all the patents, I noticed certain patterns in the ways the different types of pens and categories of patents evolved and influenced one another. Often these groupings of similar patents seemed to have an etymological slant because they revealed something about how certain terms originated, and how pen terminology in general evolved. As I put together the list of patents, and then the graphs, I noticed certain patterns of development and evolution of the various types of fountain pen technology, and I started to write articles and essays about the various patterns that I was noticing. That was when the flow of my pen articles and posts on various pen websites began. Lately, I have been arranging them and collecting them into a book that I call Fountain Pen Etymologies, including an article on the history of red hard rubber, and mankind’s fascination with the color red. Included in the appendices, along with the graphs of pen patents, there is also a genealogy tree of fountain pen filler types, a taxonomy of fountain pen filler types, a timeline of fountain pen landmarks, and a 51-page bibliography of books and articles and magazines on pens. But first let’s start with the graphs.
The inkwell patents followed a similar path in response to world issues, but the graph followed a different trajectory. The inkwells don’t die out during the Civil War and during the financial panic of 1873, but they certainly do dip down. Just the same as the fountain pens, the inkwells took a dive and went into the doldrums during the stylographic decade, which was also the decade of portability. The stylo activity displaced the inkwell activity as well as the fountain pen activity, but then the inkwells made a surge between 1888-92. The resurgence was caused by a retreat into conventional writing instruments. It was the last hurrah of the dip pen and the inkwell. There’s an anomalous high in the inkwells between 1895-97, a brief resurgence, but then the inkwells line dives below the fountain pens line and it never comes up over the pens line. The inkwells never rebounded, and they stayed down during the fountain pen’s resurgence and takeover. There’s another three-year anomaly between 1906-08, but then the line dies down during the First World War.
This graph of the inkwells and stylos shows how the stylo patents fill in the gap in the inkwell patents. It could almost be called the missing data. As well as filling in the gap in the inkwell line it also augments and bumps up the fountain pen line.
The lines of the pens-and-stylos and the inkwells together in one graph make the battle between the inkwell and the fountain pen quite “graphic”. When the inkwells graph is up, the pens graph is down, and when the pens are up, the inkwells are down. It’s interesting to watch the zigs and zags between the inkwells and the pens, but best of all it shows how the battle was eventually won by the latter.
P.S. Click on any of the graphs and then scroll through all of them with the scroll wheel on your mouse, and you can flip through the graphs in sequence, perfectly overlapped one over top another.