Wednesday, October 8, 2014

One Whale of a Pencil

I’ve had this one for a couple of years, with no leads (that’s "leeeds," not the stuff you put in the thing) to date:

The mechanism is Victorian, with a simple slider and a screw drive. If it weren’t made of something that appears to be bone, I’d suspect that the works were made by the Eagle Pencil Company.

In addition to the different barrel material, this one has an interesting imprint:

"Melville’s Patent Solid Ink." I can’t find a "Melville" who patented ink in any form, solid or liquid. But the Eagle connection? It was Eagle that held the rights to Charles Walpulski’s patented lead impregnated with ink, that would make copies when dampened (see ). Eagle called it "copying lead," but it was a solid form of ink.

Could there be an Eagle connection after all? Maybe, and it all boils down in an intriguing patent decision from 1876. There were actually three patent applications filed for "solid ink" within weeks of each other in 1875: Lothar von Faber, sworn enemy of the Eagle Pencil Company, had patented his version in Germany and was the first of the three filed in the United States, on January 12, 1875. A man known only as "R. Jacobsen" filed a similar application on February 12, 1875, and Walpuski’s application was filed on March 3, 1875.

The patent office, faced with three applications for essentially the same thing, wouldn’t issue letters patent to anyone until the Patent Commissioner determined who invented the stuff first. Jacobsen had given up by the time the matter came before the Commissioner for trial, leaving arch rivals Eagle (through Walpuski) and Faber to duke matters out. Walpuski’s version of events is as follows:

This testimony may support the notion that Eagle’s employees thought of it first, but it presents another problem.  If Walpuski had developed his compound by 1873, a patent application filed two years later would have been filed too late – inventors who fail to file within a year are deemed to have abandoned their inventions, so Faber wins, right?  Not so fast . . .

Eagle didn’t see the value of Walpuski’s lead until Faber did, and like a couple of kindergarteners fighting on the playground, after Faber picked up a toy Eagle didn’t want to play with, Eagle just had to have it. It wouldn’t be the last time playground bully Eagle pulled this stunt – as you’ll see next week.

The Commissioner believed Walpuski’s testimony that although he had the compound essentially finished, he continued to tinker with it while trying to convince Eagle that the compound was useful – an argument that did not prevail upon the company until Faber started importing pencils equipped with nearly identical lead in 1875.   Patent rights in the United States for solid ink were awarded to Charles Walpuski.

And that is how the Eagle Pencil Company, which finished dead last in the race to the patent office, nevertheless wiggled its way into the winner’s circle. For the next decade or so, Eagle would emblazon its hard-fought patent date of June 26, 1877 on mechanical pencils, even though the patent had nothing at all to do with the pencil itself – more of a Victorian "nana nana boo boo" than anything else.

So what of "Melville"? I have no evidence concerning anyone named Melville who was involved in this scuffle. A pencil made of something resembling whale bone, sharing the name of the author of Moby Dick (written in 1851) seems too obvious. Might this pencil have been a decoy, put out there surreptitiously by Eagle, Faber or some third party to test-market the product and determine whether it was worth going forward with the fight?

Anything’s possible on the nineteenth-century pencil battleground between Eagle and Faber. And in the end, Walpuski’s copying lead turned out to be a whale of an idea.

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