Monday, September 24, 2012

The Ruxton Multi-Vider

I’ve been wanting to write about the Ruxton for a long, long time. There are only two reasons I haven’t: (1) I didn’t think I was qualified to say anything intelligent, and (2) I haven’t had one cross my path. On the first count, I’m not sure I’m any further along than I was before; however, one finally did cross my path:

This one was in that last mess of stuff that came from the estate of Edgar Nichols (inventor of the Tripoint, among other things). Figures, right? Of course Edgar Nichols had one of these.
Ruxtons are marked on the side opposite the clip with the "Ruxton Multivider" imprint:

The principle between these is pretty slick: if you grasp the tip in one hand and the crown in the other and pull apart, the two halves of the barrel telescope outward:

Then, the pencil acts like a big slide rule. If you want to know what 17 times two is, for example, slide the barrels apart until the "2" reaches the arrow, trace down to 17, and the answer appears on the opposite side of the barrel. Pretty slick, huh?

Whenever Ruxtons come up, they always command a premium. I had always thought it was because they sit at the nexus between two hobbies: pencil collecting and technical drafting instruments collecting, and while that may be part of the explanation, the little I’ve been able to find out about these suggests there’s probably a little more to it than that.

The Ruxton Multivider was actually patented in Great Britain, although it was widely marketed in the United States and the Ruxton Multi-vider Corporation’s headquarters was listed as being in the Graybar Building in New York City. The patent application was filed on January 21, 1929 and was granted on February 20, 1930 as Great Britain patent number 325,327. The applicants were A. Gahagan and W. V. C. Ruxton, the latter of which might explain things.

I believe that W.V.C. Ruxton was in fact William V.C. Ruxton, a World War One veteran who went on to become the classic Wall Street Tycoon during the roaring twenties. At around the time the Ruxton Multivider was being dreamed up, Ruxton was at the center of a controversy involving another innovative product: the Ruxton automobile.

The year was 1928, and a fellow named William Muller had a great idea for a front wheel drive car. His car was radically different from anything that was produced in the 1920s – his front-wheel drive concept meant that the car could be built much lower than anything else on the market at the time, and he also designed some sleek-looking cateye headlights which, while distinctive, were not very effective (many Ruxton owners quickly replaced them with conventional headlights that made it possible to actually see after dark).

Muller formed New Era Motors to market the vehicle, and he decided to name his car the Ruxton. While all sources agree that he was naming his car after William V.C. Ruxton, sources disagree as to why – either Ruxton was an investor in the project who quickly regretted his decision and backed out, or Muller named the car after Ruxton in a misguided attempt to convince W.V.C. to invest in the project. Either way, Ruxton was not amused that his name was used on the vehicle, and he ended up suing Muller and New Era Motors to prove that he had nothing to do with the car. While Ruxton won the legal battle, it didn’t matter much. Muller’s other missteps resulted in the car only being produced for about four months in 1929 and 1930.

The story seems hauntingly familiar when we turn back to the Ruxton Multivider pencil. While there’s no evidence that our man W.V.C. He is listed as a co-inventor on the patent, an unusual little diversion for a man interested in high finance, not tinkering. Was he truly a co-inventor, or was he merely an investor who was induced into becoming involved in the project by giving him top billing as a co-inventor and having the pencil named after him? I don’t know. Did he sue the Ruxton Multivider Corporation to stop them from using his name, as he had done with Muller and New Era Motors? Not that I’ve found.

Is he really the same man as the individual listed as co-inventor of the pencil? I think he is. His service during World War One would have given him connections in Great Britain, and our man William Ruxton had another British connection: his service as president of the British American Ambulance Corps., Inc.

I wonder whether any of those ambulances were front-wheel drive?

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