Friday, May 18, 2012

Hip to Be Square

A few weekends ago Janet and I headed over to Springfield for their monthly antique show.  We were particularly eager to go this time, since the weather in Ohio has been unusually nice this spring and this is the first indoor/outdoor show.  But, as we say around here, if you don't like the weather, wait a few minutes. . . in this case, we went the opposite direction, and after a few sunny days in the 70s, the day of the show was 45 frickin' degrees and raining.  Those outdoor dealers that hadn't already packed up and headed home by 10 in the morning were soggy and in a foul mood, standing next to displays that were either covered with tarps or simply left out to soak up the charm of springtime in Ohio.

So, the enormous crowd ended up cramming into the couple small buildings, inside which the pickings were dry and the dealers were in a much better mood. 

I don't know what it is about the Springfield show . . . I always find great stuff, but it's usually not pencils.  In fact, it's usually stuff that's almost pencils, and this time was no exception.  In a dollar box I turned this up:


Normally, Eversharp leads are found in tiny little red and black containers, but this one contains the big 4" leads that went into Eversharp's "Square 4" pencils, so this package is every bit of 4 inches long.  Inside is a wood block with slots cut into it for the leads:


Only one lead left -- and it isn't square.  Oh well . . . I wasn't buying it for the lead.  It was the packaging that I found to be interesting.  Check out the back of the box:


OK, besides the hype, notice the part on the left side?


Now I've always had a love-hate relationship with Eversharp's Square Lead.  Although Eversharp claimed their square leads would work in all standard pencils, they cause lead jams because the corners shave off and leave dust and debris inside the pencil that eventually but inevitably causes problems.  That's the hate part.  But on the other hand, over the years I've bought an awful lot of "broken" pencils on the cheap that turned out merely to be jammed, so I suppose Eversharp's goofy lead has saved me a lot of money in the pursuit of my hobby!

At any rate, the thought that there was a patent out there on this lead hadn't really occurred to me, so I was excited to finally learn what made the folks at Eversharp think putting a square lead in a round hole was a good idea.  Patent number 1,916,199 was applied for by Robert Back on August 24, 1932, and was granted on Independence Day, 1933.  That's right -- July 4 -- who knew the patent office was open for business on a Federal holiday, right?


Reading over Beck's patent is exhausting, because he was really excited with his idea and goes on forever with the virtues of his invention.   This guy extolls the virtues of square lead to the point I was surprised he didn't suggest grinding them up and sprinkling them on your breakfast cereal as a nutritional supplement! 

Finally, though, I could get inside their heads to think about what they were thinking.  Here's Beck's thoughts on using square leads in round lead pencils:


So the idea was that as the corners shaved off, the dust would neatly pass through the voids around the flat sides and neatly fall out of the pencil.

Yeah.  Right.  In zero humidity, with a perfectly clean pencil, in Eversharp's R&D facility, maybe.  Outside of that, the idea doesn't work any better than you would think squeezing a square peg into a round hole would be.

But Eversharp forged ahead with the idea, selling square lead by the millions and jamming up pencils by the millions.  A jammed Eversharp would be repaired for free under Eversharp's double-check warranty, but you have to wonder how many times customers brought non-Eversharp pencils in for repair where they bought their Eversharp square lead and were told they should simply buy a new Eversharp pencil instead of paying to fix the old one.

Am I being overly cynical, or does it look like Eversharp might have done this on purpose?  It wouldn't be the first time the company pulled a stunt like this, and it wouldn't be the last, either!

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