It’s happened to all of us at some point. You’re in the garage looking for a particular screwdriver, and it’s nowhere to be found. You become increasingly frustrated as you scrounge around in the mess. You start straightening things up a bit as you hunt around in the hopes that next time it won’t be so hard to find things. One thing leads to another, and next thing you know, you look up and the whole garage is organized. Maybe you found your screwdriver, maybe not. Maybe you cut the process short by giving up and sulking off to the hardware store to buy another screwdriver.
This sort of thing happened to me in a big way about a year ago, although it wasn’t with a screwdriver, the figurative garage was far more enormous and quietly closing the garage door and slipping off for a cheap replacement simply wasn’t an option.
I’m referring to that shambles of a garage known as the United States Patent databases. I had wandered in there in search of a pre-1911 patent for a particular pencil that I had been meaning to write about for some time, and I thought I had everything I needed to find it – to carry on the metaphor, I knew exactly where that damned screwdriver was supposed to be.
It wasn’t there. I tried everything, and I simply couldn’t find it. In fact, even though I was sure it was an American patent, I couldn’t even find anything issued on that date.
The problem, as it turned out, had nothing to do with the patent itself or with the feeble skills of one hapless researcher: the patent databases were malfunctioning on that particular day, so no matter what search I ran, there were no results to be found. Although the databases were back up and running a day or so later, the experience started me thinking: what if all the tools I currently use were suddenly no longer available?
The question gained greater urgency a week or so later, when the United States government shut down over a fiscal squabble, and the USPTO posted an ominous message on its website. Despite the shutdown, they said, their website would remain available – for the time being.
That’s why, for the next six weeks, I took a break from Leadhead’s and compiled a database of every writing instrument patent I could find prior to 1911 – not just for pencils, but for pens, penholders, stylographs – anything that lays down a line on a sheet of paper. Call it pessimism that our government might not be able to reopen. Call it determination never to lose another freakin’ screwdriver. Janet called it the mess that occupied the kitchen table for weeks, but when it was finished, I called it American Writing Instrument Patents 1799-1910.
And I am pleased to report, in the process I did find my proverbial screwdriver. Here’s the pencil that started the project:
The first thing that struck me when I saw this one in an online auction was the color, which is a little different from your usual nineteenth century Eagle Automatic (they normally came in black). By the way, I found a really wild Eagle Automatic, and this is a great opportunity to show that one too, for comparison:
But note that the top and bottom treatments are a bit different and, as the seller had described, the new one is a little bigger than what I was expecting. When it arrived at my doorstep, I was pleased that the seller had also correctly described the other details that interested me: the imprints were unlike anything I had seen before. At the top end:
"Eagle Pencil Co. / New York." And better still, at the nose:
"Eagle ‘Enigma’ / Pat. Dec. 11th 88 / No. 84." The name was apt – shaking it produced quite a bit of rattling, but there wasn’t any lead coming out. In the absence of an instruction manual, finding the patent was more than a historical curiosity I wanted to add to this article – it was a necessity if I was going to figure out how the Enigma works!
In hindsight, with the databases up and running properly, patent number 394,401 wasn’t any harder to find than any of the others. In fact, a Google search for "December 11 1888 pencil" turns it up right away (I think at the time I was so thoroughly panicked by the thought of the American patent databases closing that I forgot to try a Google search).
Nevertheless, when I finally did find it, two things struck me as unusual about this patent: first, it wasn’t issued to either of Eagle’s go-to pencil inventors, Claes Boman or Joseph Hoffman: this one was issued to Gustaf Sandel of New York on an application he filed on October 2, 1888.
Second, the patent is for a nineteenth-century version of the Pilot "Shaker," which advances the lead a little each time the pencil is shaken up and down. The internal workings of this are so complicated that Sandel needed three pages of drawings to show how it works:
With Sandel’s instructions in hand, I was able to get the "Enigma" working, albeit feebly. A century and a quarter of wear, combined with the accompanying buildup of gunk inside, have not been kind to the delicate gears and ratchets inside.
As for Sandel, this is the first time I’ve run across a pencil that was patented by him. He received five patents between 1886 and 1894, all of which were assigned to the Eagle Pencil Company. Even though a career of five patents pales in comparison to the dozens that were issued to Boman and Hoffman, that’s still quite an accomplishment from a man I had never heard of before writing this article.
He’s sort of the engima of a man behind the enigma of a pencil.