Monday, March 16, 2015

The Snake That Wasn't Wrapped Around a Pencil

David Nishimura and I were talking about this pencil the other day, and he agreed to let me share his pictures of it with you today:


At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss this one as a mismatch – looks like someone slipped a gold-filled snake accommodation clip onto an otherwise ordinary pencil.   But I’ll tell you right now – that clip belongs on that pencil and it would be a crime to remove it and put it on something else!

First, let’s take a little closer look at that clip, because it’s got an unusual feature on the back side you won’t see too often on these.


“Pat. Jan 6 1914 / G.T.B.”  The reference is for the design patent for the snake clip, number 45,102, issued to our man G.T.B. – George T. Byers, who applied for it on April 14, 1913:


As to the pencil itself, it looks like there might be traces of gold fill on parts of the barrel, suggesting that maybe that gold-filled clip didn’t look quite so out of place at one time – but what really has me convinced that these two were meant to be together is a tiny hallmark found near the crown;


“G.T.” nested inside the upper loop of a B, with “Co.” inside the lower loop.  That has to be George T. Byers as well, and that fits this pencil - clip and all - into a very narrow and fascinating window in pencil history.  The George T. Byers Co. was incorporated in early 1912 – remember that date, because it will be important later on in this article:


The patent date on the clip indicates that the pencil could not have been made earlier than January, 1914, and the George T. Byers Co. is found at 94 Murray Street in the 1915 Directory of Directors in the City of New York:


The company is listed at 94 Murray Street, with G.T.B. himself listed as President and Director.  The following year, The Amerian Stationer reported in June, 1916 that Byers had associated with John E. Hayes, the former manager of The Aikin Lambert Company, to form Byers & Hayes.


Geyer’s Stationer reported on the company’s first anniversary celebration, identifying other officers of the company:


So who made the GTB pencil?  It’s a rear drive number, and after I encouraged David to try to pull the top off, he reported that neither heat nor any other means at his disposal would cause the top to budge.  Left only with evidence of a rear drive pencil, the top of which would not budge, I wondered if Cross or F.T. Pearce, the two companies most well known for their snake clips, might have made the Byers pencil.

When I followed up on that lead, I learned something I wasn’t expecting.  Byers didn’t invent the snake clip.  And was this pencil made by Pearce or Cross?  Not no – hell no.


The case of Byers v. F.T. Pearce Co., 228 Fed. Rep. 720 (1915) is a fascinating glimpse into the mudwrestling that went on in the American pencil industry in the early twentieth century, and it’s a gold mine of information.   Byers sued F. T. Pearce Co., which was interrelated with A.T. Cross, for infringement of his snake clip design patent – and the lawsuit backfired in the worst possible way.

The evidence at trial proved that the T.W. Lind Company of Providence had been making straight snake blanks (from its “die No. 932") beginning somewhere between 1890 and 1895, and that Byers’ first clips were fashioned simply by taking a Lind straight blank, “cutting off the fangs” and bending it around a pencil.

Pearce, on the other hand, first used snake clips in 1910 or 1911, and Lind began supplying snake blanks in quantity to Pearce by October 10, 1912 – Pearce had snake clips on the market by October 18, 1912 made from those blanks.  The Court noted that Byers’ patent application wasn’t signed until April, 1913 and concluded “there is nothing in the patent record to indicate Byers took any steps to patent his design at any time before defendant’s design had become well advertised and well known to the trade.”

Oh, and Byers was his own worst enemy in court.  He testified that he asked Lind for snake blanks in April, 1913 – the same month he filed his patent application -- “to get that very snake Pearce was using,” and that he then made dies from the Lind blanks and copied them exactly.  The court wryly and correctly concluded, “[Byers’ suit] has for its object the appropriation of the defendant’s design for himself, and the exclusion of the defendant from its use, rather than the protection or use of the design shown in his letters patent.”

In the end, Byers was thumped in Court about as badly as one could be.  Pearce was exonerated on the infringement claims, and the Court invalidated Byers’ patent in its entirety.    

Now, to get back to that date I said to remember earlier: the incorporation of the George T. Byers Company in early 1912.   The 1916 Byers and Hayes announcement says that Byers was well known in the pen industry for more than 25 years – but it says nothing about with whom, and neither does any other source I can find.   Walter Sheaffer testified during his famous patent suit with C.E. Barrett that he once ordered parts from Byers, but there’s no indication as to when or in what capacity he was acting (as an independent salesman, on behalf of an employer or as the owner of his own concern).

But if you string the clues together, I think where Byers was is obvious:

1.  F.T. Pearce first makes snake clips in late 1910 or early 1911;
2.  George T. Byers incorporates his new company in early 1912;
3.  Pearce begins large-scale production of snake clips in October 1912;
4.  Byers orders snake blanks from Pearce’s supplier and files his design patent application in April 1913;
5.  Byers waits until January 14, 1915 – after both Frank T. Pearce and his son, Aldridge G. Pearce had died – to file a lawsuit.

Call it a hunch if you want, but nobody likes snakes that much.  This was no simple patent dispute: this was a grudge.  Byers’ utter silence about where he was involved in the industry for a quarter century prior to forming Byers & Hayes, coupled with what appears to be an almost pathological compulsion to harass the F.T. Pearce Co. shortly after its principals die, just oozes of the story of a disgruntled former employee.

1 comment:

Carmen Bartl said...

What an amazing story. Thank you for sharing this.