Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Silent Witness

I just kind of liked the clip on this one when I saw it in an online auction:


It’s the same clip as on the Rite-Rite Travel Kit I posted about here a couple months ago (http://leadheadpencils.blogspot.com/2014/09/fun-for-on-road.html), and this one is also a Rite-Rite. Here’s what I thought I was buying:


That grey one has a hexagonal Rite-Rite accommodation clip with the lettering running in the opposite direction, but otherwise these two looked to be the same pencil.


They aren’t not. But what it is suggests there’s a whole chapter missing from a much bigger story, and this just might be what unlocks that secret. The first silent clue is found under the caps:


While the new one is made of a solid material, the barrel of the grey example is made of celluloid strips laminated over wood. The process of laminating strips of celluloid over wood was actually patented by Charles Keeran, inventor of the Eversharp, who later became the president of Autopoint:


Keeran applied for patent number 2,044,356 on June 29, 1932, and the patent was issued on June 16, 1936 – on its face, assigned to the DuPont Viscoloid Company. Although the only instance in which I’ve seen this technique used is on these Rite-Rite pencils, I assumed Keeran invented the process for Autopoint, then abandoned the idea, leaving DuPont free to license the process to others.  I assumed this because, as the bedtime story for pencil collectors goes, after Charles Keeran was ousted by Eversharp, he eventually landed on his feet at Autopoint, where he lived happily ever after.

Until, that is, I gave the other end of this new Rite-Rite a tug, and I found another clue which leads me to believe Autopoint was not where Charles Keeran spent the remainder of his career in the mechanical pencil industry:


Does that look familiar?


Here’s the Rite-Rite disassembled, next to a Dur-O-Lite and – you guessed it – an Autopoint. Dur-O-Lites and Autopoints of the period have very similar mechanisms because of their common ancestry: Dur-O-Lite was founded by disgruntled former executives of Autopoint who left in 1925 in a dispute over Bakelite’s acquisition of a controlling interest in the company.

But what about this Rite-Rite? The only difference between them is instead of a paddle-ended rod which threads inside the nose, the Rite-Rite has a hexagonal insert which screws down

over the outside of a threaded insert on the nose. I call this plausible deniability – the long way around the barn to copy a competitor.

Do I believe Charles Keeran was the copycat? Absolutely I do. The cantankerous Keeran must have been one of the Autopoint executives who left the company over the Bakelite deal in 1925: the last Keeran patent assigned to Autopoint, number 1,772,868, was issued in 1930 but was applied for in 1923. However, Keeran, didn’t follow along with those who set up shop at Dur-O-Lite. Instead, he focused on his own endeavors, including the Keeran Products Company, what appears to have been an association with Julius Swanberg and his marketing of pencils under the brand name "Keen Point."

The last of these eventually did bring him into the Dur-O-Lite fold, albeit briefly, to manufacture some of Keeran’s Keen Point pencils. Keeran was more than a Dur-O-Lite customer, though: Keeran patent number 1,821,183, applied for in 1927 and issued September 1, 1931, was assigned to the company. So was number 1,826,473, applied for on September 4, 1928 and issued October 6, 1931:


See that hexagonal plug inside the barrel which drives the rod? It’s just like the one on our Rite-Rite – with one difference: this one threads inside the tip, rather than down over the outside of it.

It is too much of a coincidence in my mind that Keeran’s lamimated celluloid process and a very, VERY Keeranesque drive mechanism both appear on Rite-Rite pencils. I believe that after Keeran left Eversharp, he spent some time at Autopoint, then left to pursue his own ventures for awhile in the Keeran Products and Keen-Point lines.  In the early 1930s, I believe he joined Dur-O-Lite briefly before moving on to Rite-Rite.

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