Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Ghost Book

I've written one more book than you think I have.  There's the pencil book, the two patent books, the trademark book . . . and what I've called my "Ghost Book."   The story behind that phantom volume is half tragic, half funny and, in light of recent events here at the blog, suddenly very relevant.

So the story behind it is one well worth telling right about now.

After a few days of furious work, I've been able to restore all the articles that ran between January, 2013 and April, 2013.  That leaves only the initial run of articles, which started in November, 2011 and ran daily for a year.  

Still, that first run is more than three quarters of what was lost.  But it wasn't really lost.

When I wrapped up the first series of articles here, I had an idea to reproduce that first year of articles in book form, with the unimaginative title The Leadhead's Pencil Blog.  It took about a month, but I had a PDF generated and ready to print by December, 2012:


I even generated a comprehensive subject matter index for it:


I had the printer lined up to publish it, and I sent out copies of the PDF to publishers in the hopes of getting the project picked up.  At the last minute, just as I was ready to pull the trigger on another self-publishing project, I stopped the press.  Schiffer Publishing called, and they were interested in the book -- at their cost, paying me royalties on sales. 

We spent weeks negotiating a contract, and after Schiffer's initial runthrough of my manuscript, they delivered a bit of bad news:  the images I had shot were not high enough resolution for their purposes, and if the project was going to proceed further, I would need to reshoot the images.

1,791 images.

What the hell, I thought.  This is my big break!  I took off nearly a month from my day job as an attorney and spent the time in my basement, painstakingly recreating all the shots I had taken during that first year.

Then came the next request:  instead of printing the articles in sequential order, could I reorganize the book into sections grouped by subject?  

Why sure, I said.  I suppose it's possible that they did not detect sarcasm as I expressed my delight at the opportunity to rewrite a 425-page book.  But I did it.  What the hell, I thought again . . . I've come this far, and (sigh) I suppose this is still my big break.

After I reshot, reorganized, reformatted and then finally reaquainted myself with my day job, I was encouraged to see that things were starting to happen.  Schiffer had renamed the book American Mechanical Pencils, designed a cover, obtained the ISBN number and the book was showing up in the company's catalog online for a release sometime around the fall of 2014:


With cover art on file and an ISBN number, the book got picked up by Amazon and other online book retailers, with "coming soon" announcements across the internet.  And then . . .

nothing happened.

I finally contacted Schiffer to ask what was going on with the project.  The editor assigned to it was at first apologizing that he dropped the ball, then explaining how busy he was and promising to get to it within one week, then two weeks, then just "soon."  I liked those conversations a lot better than the one we had after he finally got around to doing his job. 

He called me up and announced that he didn't think the book I had written had broad enough commercial appeal.  He suggested that maybe I could write a different book about mechanical pencils for Schiffer, and if I did maybe they would publish that one instead.

I was furious, and I faced a choice.  If Schiffer didn't publish my book within 18 months, I could terminate my contract.  If I said "oh, ok, let me write a book for you about mechanical pencils," then under the contract arguably anything I wrote on the subject would belong to Schiffer, and I couldn't publish it at the blog or anywhere else until Schiffer had spent another 18 months deciding whether to print it.

Yet this was my big break, right?

I'm really proud of myself for what I did next.

I told Schiffer to get stuffed.  So much for my big break. 

American Mechanical Pencils remains a ghost book still floating around on the internet.  I still get occasional inquiries about it (one guy even sent me a payment to reserve a copy that I had to refund), and to this day Amazon still shows the book being released in October, 2014 with a notation that it is currently out of stock:


In fact, the project as I originally envisioned it is also still floating around, because I had obtained my own ISBN when I thought I was self publishing it.  Here's the google books entry:


Now I'm wondering if the Google catastrophe that wiped out such a large part of my blog might be a sign of things to come -- and a sign that this old ghost may be worth bringing back to life.  All the images that were lost were images too small to count towards storage limitations on Google Drive, and I suspect that Google would rather host a smaller number of larger images than an unlimited number of little ones that "don't count."  

I've worked really, REALLY hard to locate and restore images for all the 2013 articles . . . but with a click of the button somewhere in googleland, they could be wiped out again, maybe tomorrow, maybe in another five years.  Do I really want to spend countless hours messing with pictures and formatting for that first run of articles again, with no guarantee that the changes will ever achieve that permanence I was looking for?

Hell, for that matter, would I ever have written and posted all those articles in the first place if I knew this was going to happen?

What I do know is this:  the only way the book I've got waiting in the wings will see the light of day is if I print it myself.  If I restore the images from that first year of articles, (1) nobody will buy the book and (2) Google might knock them right back out again anyway.

So I'm going gravedigging next week, looking for ways that the book version of The Leadhead's Pencil Blog can finally become a reality.  Maybe that old ghost has some life in it after all!

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Why things will be a bit quiet for awhile . . .

I started receiving reports a few weeks ago that images for some older articles here at Leadhead's weren't loading.  After I looked into it, I found that all images were deleted from articles posted prior to May, 2013 - 469 articles in all were knocked out.

I still don't know what happened.   Image storage space isn't an issue (I've only used 10 percent), and google has confirmed all of my settings are ok.   Google drive doesn't show the pictures, but they are still in there . . . somewhere.

There's a lot of good stuff in those early articles, and they still get quite a bit of use.  I think they are worth saving.

Since I don't have any better alternatives, I'm spending the time I used to spend writing restoring images.  I'm working backwards from April, 2013, so you can go to the bottom of the index (where the articles can be viewed by date) and check my progress.

It is a very slow and tedious process, but I'm taking the opportunity to use imaging editing software to improve the quality of the images as I'm reuploading them.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Brompton

I don’t know why I have three of these . . . whenever they come up, they command a bit of attention with their heavy aluminum barrels, even though the quality is just so-so:


The clips are marked Brompton, and whenever I run across these, they always have that baby blue anodyzed lower barrel.  The upper barrels, though, appear to have been anodyzed gold or bare aluminum – unless the anodyzing was so cheaply done that on some examples there’s no trace of it remaining.

Such a lackluster review is at odds with the glowing advertisement I found for these pencils in the September, 1946 issue of Popular Mechanics:


The Brompton Sales Company was located in Chicago and advertised that it’s “amazing new pencil” was “arousing unusual interest wherever displayed.”  Interestingly, the advertisement indicates they were available in maroon, black, blue and “natural;” I’ve only seen them in blue, although in my poking around online I also saw one in plain aluminum, which might have been “natural.”

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Collect Like An Egyptian

Forgive the Bangles riff . . . I know I’ll have “Walk Like an Egyptian” on the brain all day now.

At the DC show a couple years ago, I took a big gulp and paid a lot of money for an entire folder full of Victorian pencils owned by Alan Hirsch.  If I had that much disposable cash laying around (and a wife to whom the wisdom of such an investment must be explained), all of the things in that folder would still reside in my collection today.

So, I found myself prioritizing.  There were a few things in there I just had to keep for my collection, and the rest would be held out for sale at shows.  I told myself when I’d sold enough that I could stomach how much I had invested in the lot, maybe I’d go back and transfer a few more items from the sale bunch to my little museum.

There were two Egyptian mummy pencils in that bunch, both in flawless condition.  Whenever someone expressed interest in one or both of them, I would tell them the preceding story and quote an outrageous price.  As Rob Bader likes to say, “You will have to pay me enough that I can buy something I like a little bit better . . . and I like these a lot.”

Nobody liked them as well as I do, fortunately.  At the DC show this year, Ed Fingerman showed me a lovely bunch of Victorians, including a smaller Egyptian magic pencil and an obelisk figural with heiroglyphics on it.

I started doing the math in my head to figure out how much I still had out there on Alan’s collection.  Nope, I still couldn’t stomach that much, but Ed’s two examples had me cave a little bit.  The mummy pencils are no longer in my sale folder and are now safely esconced in Pencil Central alongside the ones Ed had that I couldn’t resist:


Friday, September 22, 2017

Faster Than A Speeding Bullet

“They didn’t only make one,” I’m always telling myself when I see something I’d like to have, but it isn’t available.  In this case, it was four years before another one of these came along at the DC show this year:


The clip is marked “Superpencil”:


Joe Nemecek has one of these, which he brought to the Raleigh Show for me to photograph in 2013.  There were a couple reasons I haven’t written about it before now: during my short introduction to Joe’s example, I wasn’t able to figure out how it worked.  Also, I wasn’t really happy with the way the pictures turned out, with a simpler camera and poor lighting.  I did play around with the first image in photoshop and it looks a little better than the raw image:


Note that from these pictures, Joe’s pencil looks a little longer than mine, but I think there’s a simple explanation for that.  When I got my first example, it looked like this:


That ttop piece of metal had slipped down around the celluloid center section, and it took quite a bit of wrestling to get it back up where it belongs.  I could have positioned it higher up on the celluloid so it would be as long as Joe’s, but there’s a simple reason why I didn’t:

It wouldn’t work if I did, and that may be the reason I couldn’t figure Joe’s pencil out.

When the Superpencil is disassembled, here’s what you get:


At the front end you have a simple leadholder: screwing the nose on tightens the clamps around a stick of lead, and unscrewing it a bit releases it. At the back, the top pulls off to reveal a metal cylinder with a slot and a little nub on the end:


That nub engages perfectly into the end of the spare lead compartments inside the barrel, lining up that slot perfectly with the adjacent compartment:


If I’d glued the top section in place any higher than I did, that nub wouldn’t engage with the spare lead compartments to line things up inside.  When I see Joe in Ohio, we’ll have to compare our examples to see if the back section on his is longer, indicating there were two sizes made and I just wasn’t smart enough to figure out how to use it.  If it’s the same length as mine, we’ll have to adjust his so that it works.

In operation, this thing is a real work of art.  I used .065-inch leads, which worked perfectly.  To load the spare leads, I loosened the tip, held the tip facing up and dropped in a lead, which passed through that center hole and back into that slotted metal piece at the back of the pencil.  Rotating the pencil around, the lead would fal to the outside of the slot in that back piece, so that when I point the tip down again, the lead falls into the spare lead compartment.  Pull the back out a bit and rotate the top until that nub engages in the next hole, and you can repeat the process filling the other slots.  To advance the next lead, the process is reversed: rotate the top to line up with a compartment containing a lead, point the tip up so the lead falls into the back section, rotate the barrel so the lead falls to the bottom of that slot, then point the tip down and the lead falls down through that center hole and into position at the tip.

It’s cool as all get out and I’ve never seen anything else like it, but there isn’t much information out there to tell me who might have made this thing or when.  The obvious reference that comes to mind is a play on Superman, which was introduced by Detective Comics (later DC Comics) in June, 1938 - the character, according to Wikipedia, was created five years earlier in 1933, by a couple of high school students named Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster in Cleveland, Ohio.

The most promising lead I found was a reference in the Library of Congress’ Catalog of Copyright Entries, which contains a listing for a copyright granted to the American Lead Pencil Company of Hoboken, New Jersey for the phrase “It’s a Super-pencil” on March 26, 1935:


But there’s a hyphen in ALP’s “Super-pencil” not found on these clips . . . and according to what the little bit of research I’ve done, prior to Superman’s appearance in Action Comics #1 in 1938 he resided in a desk drawer at Detective Comics – there was no popular comic book character’s name to emulate.

There’s a snippet view online of a reference to “superpencil” used in a generic sense to refer to “a pencil to correspond to the oversize pen,” which I found in a 1926 edition of The Magazine of Business, establishing that adding the prefix “super” to a word without adding a hyphen to denote superlative qualities – in that case, of size – was within the nomenclature long before it was associated with the Man of Steel.  I would think the Superpencils Joe and I have date to the late 1920s, maybe early 1930s.

More news as I’m able to learn it . . .

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Question I Hate to Answer the Most

I was determined to clear out my backlog of recent photographs before taking more pictures of things to write about, so I’ve been holding off on shooting the items I acquired at the DC Supershow last month - some 75 pieces added to the collection that I’ve been eager to tell you about.  With the last of those older pictures running in yesterday’s article, I let the blog tick along on autopilot for a few days while I finally got to spend some time behind the camera.  All the DC stuff has been shot, along with a few other things I thought were interesting, and the images are now sitting in the hopper just waiting for me to say something meaningful about them.

There are three questions people frequently ask me - one fairly simple, and two I hate.  The simple one: “What’s the oldest pencil you have?”  That’s easy.  My oldest American pencil is probably that Woodwards & Hale I wrote about recently (http://leadheadpencils.blogspot.com/2017/05/an-unbelievable-stroke-of-luck.html), but I’ve got a couple English pieces that are a few years older still.

The first question I hate is, “What’s the most valuable thing you have?”  That’s a double hate there . . . I don’t really understand the question for starters, whether the person asking means monetary value or historical value.  I’ve got bits of junk laying around which I”d pay more for than a solid gold piece – but fortunately I haven’t had to do so.  Besides, asking what’s the most valuable thing in my collection is like asking me to show you my checkbook or my stock portfolio . . . it’s kind of rude and intrusive.

However, it’s that third question that really gets under my skin: “Which is your favorite?”  Even though on its face the question isn’t nearly as boorish as asking for a peek into my wallet, that’s the question that really, really, REALLY bugs me.

Because it makes me ask myself questions that I really don’t want to answer.

It’s not as though these inanimate objects are children I’m afraid to offend, so that I feel obligated to tell them I love them all equally.  The problem is that it forces me into this existential exercise of questioning why I like something and how much.  It makes me wonder whether I like the historical tidbit I found more or less than admiring a tiny work of art I found.

It also makes me stare into the face of my own greed.  I like to believe I can be equally happy taking a picture of something as I would be owning it, and I hope that’s true . . . there’s been plenty of times when I’ve had the opportunity to photograph things that weren’t for sale, or when the price tag is more than I can swallow, and I’ve satisfied myself (some would say “settled”) for that.  But the question isn’t what I have enjoyed seeing the most, it’s what I enjoy owning the most.

Besides, if there’s that one thing I enjoy owning the most, that means there’s something out there that I enjoy owning the least, which gives me a second crisis to deal with: if it's the thing I least enjoy owning, then why on earth did I buy it?

So far, I’ve only posted one article concerning something I acquired at DC – it was that sold gold Sheaffer with Craig Sheaffer’s name engraved on it, mounted on a card signed by Sheaffer and addressed to Edd Dawson, a pencil collector (see http://leadheadpencils.blogspot.com/2017/08/craig-sheaffers-gift-to-edd-dawson.html).  Gritting my teeth, I’ve got to admit that is my favorite find from the show this year, and it’s probably in my top five finds of all time.

But as I sit here with a big pile o’ pictures of everything else I found at that show, I’m asking myself where I should start and the logical choice is which one out of all these is my favorite.  After much weeping and gnashing of teeth, I keep coming back to the one I picked up from Pearce Jarvis:


It’s not quite the Parker snake magic pencil I have only been able to admire from afar, but it’s darned close:


I could stare at that fantastic relief of a snake winding its way through the cattails all day long:


The artistry even extends to the top piece


and in the lower corner of that last shot, you can see who was responsible for this fine piece of art: Fairchild Johnson, represented by a shield with an F and a J inside it:


Fairchild Johnson was a partnership between one of Leroy W. Fairchild’s sons and Ephraim Johnson, Jr., sone of E.S. Johnson, which operated between 1898 and 1905.  The complete(ish) story, with thanks to David Nishimura and his excellent article in The Pennant, was posted here at http://leadheadpencils.blogspot.com/2016/10/somebody-elses-news.html.

Whew.  The uncomfortable question has been asked and answered, and the ice is now officially broken.  Now I won’t have as much trouble figuring out what to write about tomorrow, and I’ll be showing off all the other great things which came home from DC with me . . .

in no particular order, of course . . .

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

I Get a Pixie Stick

It’s a saying around our house . . . when you finish the job, you get a pixie stick.  The turn of phrase comes from my wife, who remembers from her days in elementary school if you finished all the food on your plate at lunch, they would give you a pixie stick (those cardboard straws full of flavored sugar).

I’ve been trying not to add to my enormous file folder called “pencil pictures,” in which are housed all of the images I haven’t gotten around to posting here.  Instead, when I started things back up at the blog this time, I resolved to take a large batch of pictures and then not take any more until I had posted all of them.  In theory, that would keep me from taking pictures I’d probably never post.

These are the last two shots standing between me and sugary goodness:


This tin of leads showed up in an online auction, and I was doubly impressed.  First, I hadn’t seen a tin of Conklin leads like this one before.  Second, I thought there was a very practical reason for that:


I thought maybe John Wahl and the Wahl Company had a lock on making metal tins for pencil leads, by virtue of patent number 1,428,195 awarded to John C. Wahl and Peter G. Jacobson on September 5, 1922.   However, note that dovetailed system which is present on Wahl containers – that is the special feature which was patented, not the idea of a metal box itself.  Still, it must have been a sufficient deterrent to most, since square boxes like this are not usually seen.

And in fact, I ended up seeing more than just one.  After I paid handsomely for this one tin, the seller contacted me to let me know he had the rest of the box, and he asked if I wanted to make an offer on the whole bunch:


Why yes . . . yes I did, thank you very much.