March 30, 2014

The Mechanical Pencil Decade

, or Charles Keeran and the Mechanical Pencil  War, 1912-22.

       Reading through The American Stationer and other stationery magazines from the early 1910s to the 1920s is almost like a short course in the history of the development of the modern mechanical pencil.  It was the mechanical pencil decade–the decade of the invention of the modern concept of the mechanical pencil.  But big profits were also at stake, and underhanded dealings were the order of the day, so it was also an industrial manufacturing war.  In the same way that 1875-85 was a seminal decade for the fountain pen, 1912-22 was a seminal decade for the mechanical pencil.  There were mechanical pencils before that decade, just as there were fountain pens before 1875, but they didn’t look like what we expected them to look like.  Charles R. Keeran was the one who initiated the transformation of the pencil.  When he came along with his “Eversharp”, everyone else just latched on to his idea.
  The standardization and finalization of the modern look was all part of that decade.
       Before then, most mechanical pencils were called pencil cases, or ever-pointed pencils, or automatic pencils, or magazine pencils, or magic pencils, or sliding pencils, or telescopic pencils, or clutch pencils, or lead and crayon holders.  Charles Livermore, in his patent no. 246,961 in 1881, was the first to call his pencil an “Automatic Pencil”, but then the Eagle Pencil Co. trademarked the word “Automatic” in 1882, TM 9,102, and turned it into a proprietary model name, and spoiled it for everyone else, and effectively killed the name.  Livermore also called his pencil a “Stylographic Lead Pencil”, as in the ad on Dec 28, 1882, p.1002.
       The term “mechanical pencil”, however, made its first appearance in the title of US trademark 3,168 in 1875 in the form “Mechanical Lead-Pencil”, which is not quite there, yet, but almost, and it didn’t appear again in that form until US patents 574,359 and 574,360 in 1896.  Its next appearance is in the specifications for patent 583,754 in 1897, where it states, “My invention relates to ‘mechanical pencils’, so called”, which implies that the term was beginning to be popularized.  Then patent 590,598 in 1897 uses the related title “Mechanical Eraser”, and patent 592,161 also in 1897 again uses the title “Mechanical Lead-Pencil”.  The next use didn’t occur until the title of US patent 928,733 in 1909, where it is finally shortened to just “Mechanical Pencil”, but the decade from 1912 to 1922 was the time when the term “mechanical pencil” finally caught on and was eventually and universally adopted.  It was about time, too, after such a long gestation.
       Here are some ads and articles in Am. Stat. from that mechanical-pencil decade.  You can see them all in the Hathi Trust Digital Library links.  The period before 1912 is predominated by the pencil advertisements for the often ugly, ungainly, inelegant “Koh-I-Noor” mechanical pencils from L. & C. Hardtmuth.  In spite of what I think of them, their ad on Apr 15, 1911, p.15, uses the ad line “The Gem Of Pencildom”.  Another brand that appears in ads in that early period with equally ugly pencils is Eagle with its “Simplex” in the ad on July 13, 1912, p.10, the “Trumpet” in the ad on Nov 16, 1912, p.38, and the “Borneo” in the ad on Nov 30, 1912 p.26.  But one pencil that stands out in that early period is the Aikin, Lambert Co. “Clutch Point” pencil, as in the ads and articles on Mar 16, 1912, p.14; Sept 7, 1912, p.18; Nov 2, 1912, p.31; June 7, 1913, p.24; Aug 23, 1913, p.2; Nov 1, 1913, p.2; and Oct 9, 1915, p.35.  The shape of the barrel of the Aikin Lambert pencil almost seems to prefigure the styling of the George W. Heath & Co. mechanical pencils, and the early Keeran “Ever-Sharps” made for Keeran by Heath.  The design of the distinctive crowns of all three pencils, however, not only resembles but derives from the classic, flared crowns of the pencil cases going back as far as the 1830s in the US patents.  The flared crowns are part of a long-standing tradition, and are often found with a jewel, or a wax seal at the top.  Here are some early pencil cases with the same flared crowns, Ex. 1, Ex. 2, Ex. 3, Ex. 4.  Even Sampson Mordan’s UK patent from 1822 shows a flared crown, or knurled knob for propelling the lead, Ex. 5.  In fact, he may have been the originator of the idea.  The name “Clutch Pencil” was also used by O’Neill & Co., later Hutcheon Bros., for their “Hutch Clutch” pencil, Nov 15, 1913, p.28 and Apr 17, 1915, p.30, and by Beegee Co. for their “Busy Man’s” clutch pencil, Mar 14, 1914, p.23, and their “Beegee” clutch pencil, Mar 21, 1914, p.19, and by the Clutch Pencil Co., “the originator of the clutch pencil, established 1897”, Apr 18, 1914, p.65.  Even Hoge, June 20, 1914, p.32, and Eagle, May 22, 1915, p.10, and Dixon, Apr 1, 1916, p.16, and Salz, Apr 15, 1916, p.30, had clutch pencils.
       Keeran & Co. makes its first appearance in Am. Stat.
on Oct 31, 1914, p.8, in a brief mention in a list of travelers in Philadelphia.  The Eberhard Faber “Magazine Pencil” is advertized as “A Barrel of Leads”, Apr 17, 1915, p.38.  The Triangle Reflex Pencil Co. ads start on July 3, 1915, p.2, and p.32, “A Revelation in Lead Pencils”.  Keeran’s “Eversharp” name first shows up in an article on Sept 18, 1915, p.30, and the first Eversharp Pencil Co. ads with a full pencil illustrated appear on Mar 3, 1917, p.17, and Apr 28, 1917, p.37.  By the time of the article on June 9, 1917, p.36, the Wahl Co. was well on its way to wresting control of the Eversharp pencil from Keeran.  And Salz had their look-alike “Sta-Sharp” pencils, May 17, 1919, p.29, and “Salrite”, Oct 30, 1920, p.24, and Nov 5, 1921, p.18.  And by Feb 19, 1921, p.25, Conklin had their “Automatic Pencil”, by June 18, 1921, p.27, Hoge had their “Pal” pencil, by Aug 13, 1921, p.40, Mabie Todd had their “Fyne Poynt” pencil, by Nov 19, 1921, p.26, Parker had its “Lucky Lock” pencil, and Waterman’s had their hard rubber pencil by Nov 26, 1921, p.26.  Venus went back to using an ancient name with their “Everpointed Pencil” of Mar 22, 1919, p.23, and Oct 25, 1919, p.72, but soon after, on Dec 3, 1921, p. 28, and Dec 10, 1921, p.17, they came up with a quaint term used by them exclusively, the term “Metal Pencils”, and starting with an ad on Mar 25, 1922, p.27, they started using both the old and new terms in the same ad, “Everpointed” and “Mechanical Pencils”, and in the ad on July 1, 1922, p.21, they used both “Metal Pencils” and “Mechanical Pencils”.  And on Aug 12, 1922, p.28, an article about the news from the Chicago stationers stated that, “There seems to be an awakening competition in the refillable lead pencils throughout the city”.  None of this came simply out of the blue.  It all came out of the reaction to Keeran’s “Ever-Sharp” and as a consequence of the mechanical pencil decade.

       Charles R. Keeran* was a central figure in the development of the modern mechanical pencil, but he was by no means the only figure involved.  Around 1912-13, Keeran took an interest in mechanical pencils.  He bought a mechanical pencil while traveling, and took it apart, and he figured that he could design a better one.  Keeran invented his “Ever-Sharp” pencil and coined the “Ever-Sharp” name in 1913.  In his famous letter, he also claimed that he was the one who chose the standard size of mechanical pencil lead, 0.047" in diameter, but that’s probably a typo for 0.046", since that is the actual size of his standard lead.**  But that doesn’t mean that the 0.046" size didn’t exist before, just that he chose it as his standard size.  There are many pencil cases and mechanical pencils from the 1800s that take leads that are 1.1 to 1.2 mm, which is just about 0.046".  But because of the success of his Eversharp pencil, that size became the standard for all mechanical pencils at the time, and the name “Eversharp” became the generic name for all mechanical pencils.  He started Keeran & Co., also called Keeran Products Co., in Bloomington, Ill., in 1913, and applied for a patent for his pencil in October 1913.  He briefly moved to New York to learn the pencil business, and his first Ever-Sharps were made, and probably designed, for him in December 1913 by George W. Heath & Co. using the patented Heath clip.  David Nishimura makes a strong case in his blog article, “Who Designed the Eversharp Pencil?”, for Heath as the designer responsible for the look of Keeran’s first Ever-Sharp mechanical pencils.
       Keeran moved back to Bloomington, and organized Keeran & Co. in early 1914, and continued to develop the business and to perfect the pencil with further patents in October 1914.  He exhibited his pencil at the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, and moved the business to Chicago in late Summer 1915.  The first ad for his pencil was published in September 1915, and he made a fateful business alliance with John C. Wahl and Charles S. Roberts of the Wahl Adding Machine Co.  He contracted them to manufacture his pencils in October 1915, and he filed a patent for the trowel clip, in April 1916.  The venture-capitalist Wahl company wrested control of his company from him when he unwisely sold a majority holding of the stock in his company to them at the end of 1916.  He was still a large stockholder in Eversharp, but he had no way of stopping the Wahl Adding Machine Co. when they decided to merge with and absorb the Eversharp Pencil Co. by swapping Wahl stock for Eversharp stock.  After the stock trading was over, he ended up owning four-tenths of one percent of the stock in the new company.  In spite of that, Keeran remained with the company, and under his encouragement they bought the Boston Safety Fountain Pen Co. in January 1917.  Even though he held the pen and pencil patents for Keeran Products Co., Eversharp Pencil Co., and later the Wahl Co., he was eventually forced out of this company.  This happened because, as he said, he committed the crime of “lese majesty”, or high treason, by asking about his decreased investments in the company in August 1917.  He wasn’t discharged or fired, probably because of the patents he controlled, but the owners of the Wahl Co. humiliated him and forced him to resign from the board of directors and to sell out to the company on Dec 20, 1917.  Its almost as if Watermans company were successfully stolen away from him by Shipman.  He fought two court cases with the Wahl Co. for many years afterwards, even though he still held one of the patents for the Wahl fountain pen lever.  He started the Autopoint Pencil Co., held patents for the Autopoint pencil, and coined the “Autopoint” name in 1918, and trademarked the name in 1919.  He made a new business alliance with Realite Pencil Co., owned by John Lynn, Michael Kaufmann, and Frank Deli, in 1921.  They were pioneering the use of bakelite plastics in the manufacture of mechanical pencils.  The company went through several incarnations until 1924, until it became the Autopoint Co. in 1924-25.  The Bakelite Corp. became the controlling owner of Autopoint when some of the partners sold out, but Keeran was still associated with Autopoint for years.  He made a hasty settlement with Wahl, and then was reduced to sending his letter to the Wahl company pleading for fairness.  Such was the fate of this pioneering giant of mechanical pencil development.  But he went on to receive other patents throughout the 1920s and up till the end of the 1930s.  And he had the last laugh because his six-page letter survived and told the true story of his pencil, and his name “Eversharp” became synonymous with the word “mechanical pencil”.

George Kovalenko.


* A lot of the details of Keeran’s story are known only because of the survival of a 1928 letter written by him to a board member of the Wahl Co.  It was first published on Robert L. Bolin’s website, “The Mechanical Pencil Industry in Chicago”,
on the “Charles Keeran Page”.

And here are the links to the 6-page Keeran letter.

** I really think that the 0.047" in Keeran’s letter is literally a typo, since it appears in a typed letter, and that’s the etymological source of that word.  I really think that Keeran intended to type 0.046", but his attention and his finger slipped.  The number “7” is conveniently right next to the number “6” on a typewriter keyboard, and it would be so easy to mistype the number and then not catch it in proofreading.  Keeran probably didn’t proofread the letter at all.  I really don’t think that Keeran intended to type 0.047".  If only Keeran had mentioned the lead size twice, or more times within that letter to either confirm, or deny his intention to type 0.047", and not 0.046".  Until then, it’s a true hapax legomenon.  It
s literally said once.