July 24, 2014

MacKinnon v. Cross?

 Am. Stat., Mar 11, 1880, p.5.

[This is the “short” preamble.  Look for part 2, the “long version”, next.]

[Posted on L&P on Oct 26, 2005.]
        MacKinnon v. Cross?  No, there was never such a court case.  It’s just a metaphor that I’m going to build on in this thread.  Justin Rank asked a good question on Pentrace on Jan 28, 2005.  If the Cross pen company is supposed to be over a hundred years old, “where are all [their] vintage pens?”.  David Williams posted a chronology of Cross achievements from this webpage, which started with the following entries.
1879 Stylographic pen
1879 Propel-repel mechanical pencil
1881 Propel-repel mechanical pencil with clutch
1912 Propel-repel expel mechanical pencil                                                                             1930 Slim mechanical pencil with black bands design
1930 Fountain pen with black bands design
​And Doug Flax posted a defence of Alonzo T. Cross, calling him “this venerable, but often-maligned maker”.  Well, as it turns out, Cross is justifiably “often maligned”, so let me tell you why I think so.
        The problem is that the chronology in the website mentioned above doesn’t answer the question that was asked.  Well, it does, and it doesn’t.  It answers it in an oblique way, because it doesn’t mention fountain pens until the 1930s.  The question was where all those vintage Cross pens have gotten to.  Well, maybe there
weren’t that many in the first place, at least not many that were successfully marketed.
        All of Cross’s early fountain pen patents were failures.  In a time when Waterman was simplifying the fountain pen to 5 or 6 parts, Cross was patenting overly complex and unworkable pens.  The more parts you have, the more crevices there are for ink to creep into and dry up in, and to clog up the pen.  Those early patents were probably never put into production.  The only surviving examples of their pens are the Peerless fountain pens, the ones that mimic the style and simplicity of the Waterman’s pens.  One of their ad lines in the period 1889-1899 was, “Simplicity [Is] Its Chief Feature”.  But Cross was merely the agent for this pen, which was probably produced for them by another company after the early period of failures.  Where are all those examples of the pen that was advertised with the slogan, “The Cross ‘Perfected’ Fountain Pen Is A Natural Fountain Pen”?  I think that was the original question. Cross didn’t come anywhere near the claim in Wirt’s slogan, “More sold than all other makes combined”.
​        Take a look at the chronology again.  The first entry is for the Cross stylo, which was merely a rip-off of MacKinnon’s stylograph.  It starts off with a “borrowing” of MacKinnon’s idea, and then continues for 51 years with not a single mention of a fountain pen.  All it gives from 1879 to 1930 are references to mechanical pencils.  That’s 51 years of not very many fountain pen ideas, except for what they could beg, borrow, or steal from others.
​        On Jan 29, 2005, Rob Astyk wrote, “Well, okay.  Let’s malign Cross.  Barbara Lambert unequivocally states that Cross saved examples of its products, but chucked records in the 1960’s and 1980’s when offices were moved.  Thus, a lot of her history of the company’s products is either deduction or pure conjecture.  The slogan ‘since 1846’ is actually a very arbitrary date according to Lambert.  It is the year that Alonzo Townsend Cross was born.  His father, Richard, was in the jewelry business in America as early as 1839 and both Crosses, pere et fils, ‘gave 1848, 1849 and 1850 as founding dates’ according to Lambert.
        “In defense of Barbara Lambert’s book, I must note that the lady was writing as an express commission from the owners. Her book never bites the hand that feeds her.  She also appears to be completely unaware of the Day Rubber Archive.  Thus, when she passes quickly over the Cross v. MacKinnon law suit, the involvement of various Boston stationers and the Cross Pen Company of Boston it’s because she’s not done her homework fully and because she’d been paid not to.
        ​“I rather think that the Peerless pens come out of the Day factory via Boston.  In the old Boston City Directories the advertisements for Greenough, Hopkins and Cushing and their predecessors show a Maltese cross on which is superimposed a lion with a pen in its mouth.  The earliest ads show a Cross Stylograph in the lion’s mouth.  About 1890, the stylographic becomes a Peerless and remains until it is supplanted by a Moore’s safety about 1900.  I know that’s slim evidence, but without those records that the Boss family dumped twenty and forty years ago, it’s kind of difficult to know for certain.  What we can know is that the factory in Providence, Rhode Island was a rather small place that did not turn hard rubber or produce nibs of any kind....Actually, Cross Peerless fountain pens [from the 1880s-90s] are not found very often, but they are out there”.
​        Later on, Rob also said, “I forgot to mention [something that] explains the problem with Cross pens.  From about 1916 to approximately 1935, Cross made nothing but pencils and jewelry items.  Even the pens introduced in the 1930s were contract pieces made by LeBeouf.  Therefore, at the time when the fountain pen was in full flower, Cross was out of the market.  The fountain pens left the Cross line after only a few years and were not available for the great surge in pen buying that attended America’s entry into World War II.  No wonder they are hard to come by.  While the pens are hard to find and distinctive, their very limited production and availability makes any pens made after 1900 very scarce indeed”.
        Then on Oct 19, 2005 in another exchange on Pentrace Rob wrote, “Actually the first A. T. Cross fountain pens were stylographics going back to the late 1870’s.  Alonzo Cross won a patent fight with Duncan MacKinnon, and became the premier maker of stylographic pens in the 1880s”.  And Stephen Overbury responded, “Actually, Cross stole the idea from a Canadian, Duncan MacKinnon.  MacKinnon was a pharmacist from Stratford, Ontario who responded to a contest in Scientific American calling for new inventions on how to control ink flow.  He came up with the stylographic pen concept and won the contest and began manufacturing the pens in New York....Afterwards, Cross copied the idea.  The first MacKinnon pen dates earlier than the Cross model.  The almost identical pen was made by Cross sometime later”.
        Stephen is right, but so is Rob.  The Duncan MacKinnon stylo came first, and well before Alonzo T. Cross’s.  But I think Rob was saying that Cross’s first nibbed fountain pens were failures, and that his stylographics were his first successful pens.  After that, Cross went on to sell the Peerless pen, which was made for Cross from another’s design.
​        Now, concerning the word “stylographic”, Duncan MacKinnon was not the person who coined the term.  MacKinnon didn’t use the word in his Canadian patent in 1875, his UK patent in 1875, and his US patent in 1876.  In the Canadian patent, number 4,809 issued on June 5, 1875, he used the phrase “Combined Pen and Ink-Holder”, and he still used the word “fountain pen” in his 1876 US patent, number 174,965.  But in articles written about the pen in Scientific American magazine at the time, the name “ink pencil” is used.
        The first use of the word “stylographic” originates in the early 1800s in the UK, as the name for an apparatus for making duplicate copies of written or drawn works.  But the word as applied to a writing instrument was actually coined around 1878 by Charles Woodbury Robinson in the British advertising for the Cross stylograph.  James P. Maginnis, in his definitive Cantor Lectures on the early UK patents for steel, reservoir, stylographic, and fountain pens writes that Robinson, an American who imported and introduced the early American stylographs to the UK, “ have been the first to suggest the word ‘stylographic’ as applied to these pens”, and that A. T. Cross “was the first maker to adopt the name”.  In spite of that, MacKinnon scooped Cross and was the first to use the word “stylographic” in a US patent.  The word makes it first appearance in the US Patents in the July 15, 1879 patent numbered RE 8,802, a re-issue of MacKinnon’s 1876 US patent, and then again in his July 29, 1879 US patent number 217,888.
        So let me get back to that metaphor I started with.  Both Rob and Stephen are right when they say that Cross stole the idea and won the patent fight in the real court case “Cross v. MacKinnon”.  But the irony of it is that MacKinnon won out in the end.  MacKinnon’s original patents of 1875 and 1876 called for a weighted needle valve.  Cross changed MacKinnon’s weighted needle valve to a spring-loaded one.  The only thing Cross added to the design of the MacKinnon stylo was one spring.  That’s it.  His so-called “patentable” idea consisted of a SPRING!  As Mark Twain wrote in his letter to Helen Keller on Mar 17, 1903, “He added his little mite—that is all he did”.  Now, if Cross had owned the patent for the MacKinnon stylo, then the spring patent could be viewed as an evolution of and an improvement upon their own idea, but they didn’t own the stylo patent.  The Cross patent should never have been allowed by the USPTO in the first place.
        At first it seemed the spring-loaded valve functioned better than the weighted valve, so MacKinnon briefly adopted this innovation in his stylos.  That spring was the reason for the patent suit.  As it turned out, the spring was constantly submerged in the highly acidic ink of the day, and it very quickly corroded, even though it was made of silver or gold alloys.  It quickly lost it springy tension, and didn’t function very well, after all.  By 1880-81 MacKinnon reverted to the weighted needle valve, not only as a result of the patent suit, but also because it functioned better.  That’s why MacKinnon bothered to have his original patent reissued in 1879 without any substantial changes.  Just look at all the drafting pens of our time, the direct descendants of the stylographic pens.  Not one of them makes use of the spring idea.  Every single modern drafting pen, to the last one, makes use of the weighted needle idea.  MacKinnon’s original idea was vindicated.  So now who has the last laugh?

[Posted on Oct 28, 2005.]
        Rob Astyk asked backchannel what prompted this lengthy dissertation on MacKinnon and Cross.  When I post something on a pen board that does not have an archive, I always try to bring it over to an archived message board to give it a lasting home.  If I’m going to expend the effort to research and write something lengthy, I’m not going to treat it as a piece of ephemera, and just let it disappear after a few days on the board.  Well, there were two interesting threads concerning MacKinnon and Cross this year on Pentrace, one in January and another in October.  So I took the opportunity to amalgamate my two responses on those occasions and Rob’s long response to my posts, and to expand upon them and turn them into the above post.  That way they will always be retrievable online by some unknown collector or researcher in some far off place, such as Japan.  In fact, that’s how I met Ron Dutcher many years ago.

[Posted on Mar 4, 2012.]
​        Perhaps the first post in this thread is a little bit long-winded because most of what is said there can be distilled to what is said in a letter I found in American Stationer.  Replying to a note in an earlier issue that was critical of their stylo, MacKinnon & Co. sent a letter to the editor that was published on July 2, 1879, p.14.  It basically said two things.  They complained that Cross was “selling our pen without our license”, and that Cross was “making [their own stylo] soft-pointed”, in other words, they were giving all stylos a bad name by making the Cross stylo without an iridium point.  That was what it all came down to, those two complaints.
        But then I kept reading, and you wouldn’t believe what else I found.  If you thought the first post here was long-winded, “Well, just watch me”, as Pierre Elliott Trudeau famously said.  But instead of suspending civil liberties, as Trudeau did, let’s give them free reign.  And don’t complain too much because “I might regret my liberality” and take it all back.  But here goes anyway.  First, let’s go back a few steps.  I’m going to post the complete texts of the note and the letter I cited above, but I’m also going to post a whole lot more under a new topic about
the stylographic war of 1880, coming soon, to a blog near you.

George Kovalenko.