Monday, September 29, 2014

McColm Stops the Presses

As October, 2013 drew to a close, I was starting to feel the weight of the world begin to lift – or at least the weight of the first volume of my patent book. I had examined thousands of patents one by one, carefully documenting each as I went in a spreadsheet. For several weeks my day job had been just the middle part of my day, my break in between the early morning and late night sessions of tedious database building and editing. Many days I spent more time working on the book than I did at the office – and I was spending full days at the office.

But with the most difficult and mind-numbing part of the process done, I was having fun writing the short stories which accompany the illustrations in the book. Light was beginning to show at the end of the tunnel, and Janet was relieved as I assured her the book would be done before the Ohio Pen Show in November (little did she or I know that work on Volume 2 would start after the new year).

It was during that time that Matt McColm sent me an email of a pencil he’d found in a coffee can full of Coors bottle openers (since Matt’s from Denver, that’s not much of a surprise – the Coors part anyway):

The Coors part might not have been a surprise, but you have to wonder what made an antique dealer think that’s where something like this belonged. "Hmm, here’s a pencil . . .looks really old, possibly gold, works good . . . beautiful mother of pearl . . . ah, I’ve got the perfect place for that in my display, in that coffee can over there with all those rusty old mid-century bottle openers." Really?? I like to think things like this look just a little more special than that, even to the untrained eye!

I shouldn’t complain. Matt knew something like this was right up my alley and the method to this particular dealer’s madness made it that much cheaper for him to snap it up for me. And with the draft of my book about done, I thought I’d show off a little bit and asked him if it had a patent date. It did:

"Fairchild / PL Pat. Mar.8.81." I flipped to the first section of the book, in which patents are organized by date, and thumbed to March of 1881, and . . . nothing. I didn’t have even a single patent listed for March 8, 1881. The light I had seen at the end of the tunnel suddenly looked so much farther away. How did I miss this one? And if I missed this one, how many others did I also miss? 

Back to the patent databases I went. I brought up all the patents issued on March 8, 1881, and there were 282 of them. I scanned through for any issued in patent classification 401: there was one, but it was for a mucilage bottle stopper, not anything writing instrument-related. I checked the other categories in which I’d turned up writing instrument patents, and there was nothing there, either.

Maybe Fairchild imprinted the wrong date, I told myself. Maybe it’s a foreign patent, or maybe the "PL" at the beginning of the imprint was a clue to tell me to look somewhere else.

I knew the right answer. "Maybe" wasn’t good enough. It was unacceptable that I’d written a book designed to assist collectors with identifying their artifacts, and here’s an artifact with a date I can’t explain. There wasn’t any substitute for doing things the old fashioned way: heck, there’s only 282 of them, I thought, and I’ve had to resort to this before (see "Eagle Week Part 1: Stop Gauge Pencils" at

Well, not quite. Unlike the nasty "Walpuski affair," during which Charles Walpuski’s patent of June 26, 1877 turned out to be the very last patent indexed on that date, this mysterious March 8, 1881 patent turned up more quickly. It was number 26 on the index, but this time I tried a simple Google Patents search for "March 8 1881 pencil" and patent number 238,735 was the first one on the list:

Lewis P. Warth of New York applied for this patent on January 13, 1881 for a method of attaching pearl slabs to pencil cases (hence the "PL" at the beginning of the imprint, analogous to Ephraim S. Johnson’s "Pearl Patent Dec 5 1871" inscription found on so many Victorian pencils). Warth’s patent was assigned to Frederick J. Kaldenberg, also of New York.

I breathed a little easier, since this patent didn’t reveal glaring holes in my methodology. Warth’s patent was indexed under current U.S. patent classification 138 ("pipes and tubular conduits"), subcategory 141 ("distinct layers, bonded together"). Theoretically, if some wealthy Victorian gentleman wanted all his plumbing laminated with pearl slabs, this is the patent date you might find imprinted somewhere under his sink. Johnson’s Pearl Patent of December 5, 1871 was in classification 138/140 (distinct layers, but not with the "bonded together" part), so that’s why my check in that category didn’t turn it up, either.

The moral of the story is that the books and databases can only take the researcher so far. No matter how booksmart I had become on the subject, it took an actual artifact to lead me to this one. It’s entirely probable there are other patents out there like this one, which conventional research will never find absent any evidence that some goofy process of enameling or method of assembling bits of brass whilst standing on one’s head were ever applied to the art of making writing instruments. These are still out there waiting to be rediscovered, unceremoniously dumped in coffee cans full of junk in some antique store.

But not this one. Thanks to Matt McColm’s fortuitous foray into a can full of bottle openers, the "McColm Memorial Patent" is now found in my book on page 32!

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