April 24, 2014

MacKinnon and ‘nirvana’

        My involvement with MacKinnon’s stylograph started in 1993 when I discovered the then mostly overlooked and unread patents for fountain pens.  It was a revelation of eureka proportions, especially for someone living “due north” of the United States, which was at the time the center of the pen-collecting world, and finding that almost no one “due south” knew the true story of MacKinnon’s stylograph.  So when Bart Grossman wrote on the Zoss List on Feb 19, 1998 that he believed that stylographic pens “were invented by Cross” for the purpose of manifold writing with carbon paper, that really got my goad.  So I posted that “A. T. Cross did not invent the stylograph!  Duncan MacKinnon did.  Take a look at the materials in the information package on Duncan MacKinnon that I submitted to the PCA, and which was published in their newsletter The Pennant, Vol. IX, No. 1/2, Spr-Sum 1995, pp.6-8”.  See my two long posts concerning “MacKinnon v. Cross?” and “MacKinnon v. Cross!”.  Bart replied that he had just sent a post to Zoss “with a quote from Crum-Ewing on this”.  “What’s the contrary evidence?  Can anyone shed additional light?  I would guess it comes down finally to who holds the patent”.  Here is the quote from the Crum-Ewing book, The Fountain Pen: A Collector’s Companion, pp.86-87.
During the 1870s, A. T. Cross had [other] major projects in hand.  However, the stylographic pen is often regarded as A. T.’s greatest achievement.  It revolutionized fountain pens and the art of correspondence as a whole.  It was the first successful writing instrument that could produce an ink-written original with multiple carbon copies.  It delivered wet ink to paper through a strong tubular needle and spindle that served as a writing point in place of the traditional nib.  A writer could therefore bear down hard enough to write through carbons.  Prior to this invention carbon copies could only be made with a pencil because the traditional nib was too short and flexible to bear the necessary pressure without breaking.  The stylographic pen was so important an invention that the U. S. Post Office almost immediately made its use mandatory [by its employees].
        So I wrote, “What can I say?  The Crum-Ewing book is wrong.  Duncan MacKinnon patented his stylographic pen in Canada and the UK in 1875, and in the US in 1876, well before A. T. Cross patented his stylograph in 1877.  Cross in effect copied the basic mechanism and appearance of MacKinnon’s stylograph, and then added one thing to the internal mechanism, a spring, and repatented it.  At about the same time, Livermore, Edward Todd, Ullrich, and others came out with their own stylographs.  It was the first type of fountain pen to be both dependable and successful with the public, preceding Waterman’s famous fountain pen patents of 1884 by almost ten years.
        “Here’s the relevant patent information regarding MacKinnon’s and Cross’s stylographs and Waterman’s fountain pens.
Duncan MacKinnon’s patents for stylographs, Canadian patent 4,809, June 5, 1875, UK patent 2,497, July 12, 1875, and US patent 174,965, Mar 21, 1876. 
A. T. Cross’s patents for stylographs, US patents 189,304, April 10, 1877, and 190,130, May 1, 1877. 
L. E. Waterman’s patents for fountain pens not until 1884!, US patents 293,545, Feb 12, 1884, and 307,735, Nov 4, 1884.
There are two other patents for early precursors to the stylograph previous to MacKinnon’s patents dating from 1849 and 1857, but these came to nothing and didn’t have much influence on the later conception and design of the MacKinnon stylograph.
        “MacKinnon’s pen had a gravity-actuated needle, but Cross patented a pen based on MacKinnon’s invention by substituting a “spring” for the gravity idea, and then challenged MacKinnon for patent infringement when MacKinnon incorporated the “spring” into his own pen.  Despite the MacKinnon pen’s early predominance, this litigation eventually put the MacKinnon pen company out of business a few years later, but one of the owners, Francis Cashel Brown, created another company, Caw’s Pen & Ink Co., which continued making stylographs into the 1920s.  Cross also challenged Livermore, but this time he lost.  With the ensuing proliferation of stylograph manufacture, Cross’s early success in the field was lost in the flood.  However, even Barbara Lambert’s book on the Cross pen company grudgingly acknowledged that MacKinnon was first.”
        Then Bart replied, “Thanks, I appreciate it and stand corrected, but who will correct Crum-Ewing?  Anyway it’s nice that there are people on this list with such dedication to the truth.  The confusion about all this is obvious when you consider that the most famous of the drafting or technical fountain pens is the Koh-i-noor “Rapidograph”.  As a long-term user of Radiographs I am now very curious to see what a real stylograph is like.”
        And Rick Conner wrote, “Thanks for the comprehensive info, George.  I checked in the F&S blue book, which shows pics of both Cross and MacKinnon stylographs, and gives a brief version of the history you provided under the section on A. T. Cross.  Lambrou’s smaller book (FPs Vintage & Modern) mentions MacKinnon only briefly (as offering a pen with “a circle of iridium on the nib”[??]), and Cross just as briefly (offering the “Perfected Stylographic Pen” in 1892), no mention of the Cross-MacKinnon battle, or of the earlier history of stylographs.  The 1875 date puts the commercial sale of the stylograph quite a few years before that of the Waterman Ideal”.
        And then Nathan Tardif responded with the funniest and most gratifying message of all.  “YES!  That Canadian fellow is RIGHT!  Great post, George!  Thank God there is somebody out there who has their facts right!  So many believe that Cross and Waterman (and some crazy people even think Mont Blanc) were the “first” in Pendom.  They are all wrong.  I have been collecting early stylos since I can remember, and to read George’s post was pure nirvana!”
*  I truly laugh out loud every time I read that line.  Every time.  He finished his post with screaming all-capital-letters, “THE DUNCAN MACKINNON PEN WAS THE FIRST VIABLE FOUNTAIN PEN!!!!!!”
        Now, with that one word, we are free from the endless cycle of birth-and-death of theories and beliefs and their accompanying suffering.  It’s as if historical research were an idealized state or place that was free of the pain of and the worries about that which was indistinct or unknown, blown about by the wind.  Now, that’s really beginning to sound a little bit like Constable Benton Fraser, Sergeant Bruce, and Dudley Do-Right all rolled up into one great big spliff!

George Kovalenko.


* nirvana (nir-VAH-nuh), N.
1. Freedom from the endless cycle of birth and death and related suffering. 
2. An idealized state or place free of pain, worries, etc.
[Loanword from Sanskrit, nirvana (blowing out, extinguishing, extinction), from nis- (out) + vati (it blows).  Ultimately from Indo-European root we- (to blow) that is also the source of wind, weather, ventilate, window and wing.]