Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Things I Need to Know

When I first started practicing law, I got my start examining real estate titles at the Recorder’s Office here in Licking County, Ohio. No fair snickering like a bunch of sixth-graders at the name out there: my home county is named for the salt licks that once dotted the landscape.

My job as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed associate involved (to show that I’m older than I look) pulling huge leatherbound volumes of documents from the shelves, bringing them back to a stand and opening them up to review the documents that had been filed. These books were dusty, enormous and heavy, so those who did not possess or acquire an aptitude for remembering numbers would make many more trips back to the shelves and carry around a lot more of these big books than necessary.

The lesson I learned from the experience and still carry with me today is the ability to commit six-digit numbers (say, "204696" for Volume 204, page 696) to memory very easily – in my case, even easier than I can remember a person’s name. Seven digit numbers, such as patent number 2,028,855, also stick, especially if I’ve spent some time studying that patent. I remember them like phone numbers, playing them out on a keypad in my head and remembering the shapes they trace as I do.

Whether my years of lugging big books around beat it into me, or whether some innate ability made me well-suited for my profession, it is a gift that frequently becomes a curse. While most people would stumble across yesterday’s Hicks repeating pencil and just be thrilled with it for what it is, I couldn’t focus completely on that, because there was a thought playing on a loop in my head:

2,028,855. 202-8855? 2 . . . 0 . . . 2 . . . I’ve seen that number somewhere before.

It’s an easy number to remember if you think about it – on a phone, all the numbers are in the middle row. The good news is that I am not (completely) crazy; I had seen this number, and at long last I’ve finally figured out where. The bad news is that where I saw it raises a whole slew of new questions and doesn’t provide any answers.

Here’s the picture from frame 10 in the Conklin section of The Catalogue of American Mechanical Pencils, at page 34:

These are what collectors refer to as "Chicago Conklins," produced by the company in its last few years, after the Starr Pen Company bought the brand, relocated what remained of the proud company to Chicago, and churned out increasingly terrible products under its banner. As I noted in The Catalogue, the pencil on the right in this picture is unlike anything else Conklin made. Here are some better pictures of that pencil:

Hmm. Same patent number. At the time I wrote The Catalogue, I thought there might have been some parts missing, since the nose can be unscrewed but nothing happens. Now that I understand the design better, I know that this is in fact Conklin’s one and only attempt at producing a cap-actuated repeating pencil – unfortunately, since the company used such cheap plastic, the barrel has constricted around the mechanism and has permanently frozen it in place.

We’ve gone from the sublime to the ridiculous here, from the classiest and most unusual Hicks in my collection to the one of the ugliest and definitely the most unusual of Conklins. None of Arthur Winter’s patents were assigned to anyone, so the simplest answer is that Winter licensed his design to at least two separate companies. But the possibility that there might be some connection between these two licensees is an intriguing one.

Not only is my Winter-patent Conklin the only cap-actuated Conklin pencil I know of, it is the only example of which I’m aware of any attempt at new product development by Conklin in the mechanical pencil department after the move to Chicago.

Why this design? Why at all?

I’m going to throw out there the one and only idea I have that may be a clue. As I mentioned yesterday, my Hicks repeater has the initials "HBS" on the back. Could the "S" be for "Starr?" My research indicates that the Starr Pen Company was taken over by Joseph Starr and his brothers William, Samuel and Jack, in 1942 when they inherited the company from their mother and father, but I’ve never been able to discover mom and dad’s names.

Could it be that Mom or Dad’s initials were HBS? Could they have been so impressed with their Hicks pencil that they were moved to attempt to produce their own version before the company was passed on to their sons? Or could one of the Starr brothers have had a wife with these initials who might have said to one of them, "Why can’t you make one this nice?"

It’s a longshot, and maybe a crazy theory. But what the heck – it wouldn’t be my first. Something must have moved the Starr Company to engage in this one-time experiment to build a better Conklin pencil, at a time when the Conklin name was otherwise for the Starr brothers just a cash cow running out of milk.

I’ve reached a dead end on this one. Can anyone find the names of the other members in the Starr clan?

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