Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Only Thing I Accomplished That Day

Here's a group of Roller Rule pencils, as illustrated at page 130 of The Catalogue:


What's bugged me about the Roller Rule for a long time is that I haven't been able to track down the patent for it.  Unlike most patented doohickeys, the Roller Rule doesn't have either a patent number on it or the patent date.
A few weeks ago I had one of those days at work -- the kind of day where I worked really hard, all day long, and at the end I felt like I got absolutely nothing accomplished.  No bad guys were beaten, no good guys vindicated, and tomorrow I'd start all over again in exactly the same place.

That, in my book, is exactly the kind of day hobbies are made for.  I decided that I was going to accomplish something that day -- just one thing.   And that one thing was going to be figuring out who invented the Roller Rule. 

I'd started, of course, with George Kovalenko's book, but nothing in there fit the bill.  Besides, since the measuring unit doesn't necessarily have to be in a pencil, it might not be indexed as a pencil patent.  So I thought to myself, "what would Kirchheimer do?"   

Daniel Kirchheimer plays with words.  So I started playing, putting different words into the search engine to see what came out.   Ruler . . . rolling . . . measuring . . . attachment . . . bingo!

Indexed in category number 33 (not 401, where the pencils are) was patent number 1,599,680, which was issued to one John Hoe Morehead of Clarkdale, Arizona on September 14, 1926:

Morehead's invention shows an ordinary wood pencil shoved into the bottom end of an otherwise non-pencil related measuring device, but all of the elements of the Roller Rule are present:  the spinning finial that advances an indicator down the barrel. 

But there's a problem.  From what I've been able to find out, the Roller Rule was first marketed in 1948 by the Roller Rule Sales Company in Los Angeles, California, then later by the Roller Rule Manufacturing Company of Long Beach, California.  Even though this sure looks like our pencil, this couldn't be the right patent.  It would have expired by 1948, so the Roller Rule wouldn't really be "patented" by that point.

So I wondered if maybe I didn't have another Carl Harris on my hands --Harris, the inventor of the Slencil, made and patented improvements to his flat little pencils over a period of decades. 

I changed the search term to look for inventions by the inventor John Morehead, and a second patent popped up:


Patent number 2,363,545, issued on November 28, 1944, looks a lot closer.  It still shows an ordinary wood pencil shoved into the end of a separate attachment, but there are measuring increments illustrated on the crown, the date is about right, and Morehead's hometown is listed as Long Beach, California -- the same city in which the Roller Rule Manufacturing Company was located.  

Still, though, it could be a coincidence.  The attachment shown is closer, but it still just doesn't look like the Roller Rule.  And it's also possible that there might have been two people working on this idea in Long Beach, California.

But a third Morehead patent appeared to resolve these lingering doubts.  He applied for number 2,967,356 on October 4, 1957 and it was issued on January 10, 1961:

In this design, the sliding indicator on the back of the barrel has been abandoned in favor of a simpler numerical window.    Here is a measuring unit incorporated into a pencil, with the same shape and profile as the Roller Rule (note particularly the clip), applied for while the second Morehead patent was still in full force. 

As far as I'm concerned, these three patents provide the answer:  John Hoe Morehead was the inventor of the Roller Rule pencil.   And finding that out was all that I needed to turn around an otherwise frustrating day!

***News flash*** After this article was written, I was poking around and read an article on the Roller Rule over at "Dave's Mechanical Pencils" blog.  I noticed that in one of the reader's comments, one guy wrote that his grandfather had invented the Roller Rule and that he remembered helping to assemble them.  I emailed him and asked him -- fingers crossed -- if his name was John Morehead. 

Whew.  David Morehead, grandson of John Hoe Morehead, wrote me back to confirm that it was!

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