Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Self Sharpening Pencil Co.

Some time ago I was trolling around the U.S. Patent Office records, and I ran across this patent, which I had put in my "gee, wouldn't it be cool to find one of THOSE" file:

The inventor was one Newton Crane from Boston, Massachusetts, and his pencil design was well ahead of its time in three respects:  first, his pencil was made to use triangular or "prismatic" lead (almost 25 years before Eversharp introduced square lead); second, the barrel was also triangular, to better fit the hand (about 20 years before the introduction of the Triad).

And third?  Well, isn't this just about the coolest looking thing you've ever laid your eyes on?

Although I never give up hope that I'll run across something I've heard about, I wasn't ever really expecting to find one of these.  That all changed a couple months ago, when a guy from Cambridge, Massachusetts found me through my Mechanical Pencil Museum and sent me an email about something he found at a local yard sale.  According to him, he paid $1.50 for a box of "junk," in which was a silk-lined box of pencils with "Self Sharpening Pencils" on the inside of the lid.   After some spirited negotiating (I think he's been watching too many episodes of American Pickers), I did end up acquiring the lot:

When it arrived, the box was smaller than I was expecting: only 9 1/4 inches wide by 4 3/4 inches.  Inside are a dozen metal pencils painted with different shades of pastel enamel.

Note the differences from the pencil shown in Crane's patent drawings: the rudimentary knob shown in the drawings has been replaced with a rounded top with a more streamlined look, like something Jules Verne would have enjoyed.   Eleven of the pencils are really small, measuring only 4 inches in length and a hair less than a quarter inch in diameter.  All of these use round lead and lack any markings whatsoever.  The twelfth is a different story, however.  It is larger, measuring 4 1/4 inches long and about 5/16" in diameter, and it was designed to use triangular lead.   The larger one is also the only one of the lot which bears any markings.

The larger one bears the imprint "Self Sharpening Pencil Co." on the barrel, next to a trademark of a crane within a triangle - get it? 

OK, so the crane trademark on the barrel probably should have given this one away, but with literally thousands of pencil patents to sift through, it was the patent date imprinted on the larger example - September 17, 1912, that established the connection for me between the Self Sharpening Pencil Co. and Newton Crane.

Had triangular lead caught on, Newton Crane might well be a household name right now as the father of the best thing since sliced bread - or maybe triangular bread.  However, the high cost of producing a special lead for one obscure pencil likely doomed the Self Sharpening Pencil to failure, since without a reliable and economical source of refills, these would have gone the way of the Parker Liquid Lead pencil. 

As the presence of round-lead examples in this grouping illustrate, Crane must have realized this and modified his design in the hopes that the use of a conventional lead size would increase his pencil's market appeal.  The discovery of this half full display case suggests not many were sold.  Perhaps by 1912 standards, this streamlined pencil was just a little bit too far ahead of its time.  By the time Wahl Eversharp got into the pencil business,  Newton Crane and the Self Sharpening Pencil Company had slipped quietly into history.

Until, that is, a chance find at a garage sale and the internet brought them back into the light a century later.

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