Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Sheaffer . . . If Only On The Outside

I looked at this one just one too many times at The Ohio Show. Something just didn’t look quite right, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was:

After I’d carried it around for a couple hours it dawned on me what was different . . . there’s no center band. While the lack of any band was a common configuration on pre-war Sheaffer pencils, post war examples had at least something in the middle, even if it was a simple bead band used on the "Sovereign," "Admiral" and "Craftsman" examples. Here’s the new addition flanked by a bead band example and a "Statesman" trimmed example.

Once I got these three together, I noticed something else: this new example has a ring of little dimples around the nose cone that isn’t present on any other Sheaffer in my collection, and it’s a little wider where the cone meets the lower barrel:

Occam would be proud of me: my first thought was that parts had been swapped. Since the bead band pencils had no trim on the cap, and the Statesmans didn’t have any trim on the lower barrel, I thought maybe someone had put the cap from one onto the barrel of the other:

But when I pulled the cap from my new example to test fit it on the other examples, it did something odd:

The steel drive tube has cracked, causing it to pull off the mechanism. Sheaffer pencils just never do this — they are too well made to come apart in normal use. There is, however, another brand which is plagued with this problem:

That’s a Parker Vacumatic. Now don’t get excited about the possibility of a partnership between Parker and Sheaffer to make pencils, because I don’t think that’s what happened. Why? Because Parker didn’t make the mechanism inside later Vacs like this one – as well as the 51s, and many of the other Parker models that came after that. It’s not widely known, but it is well documented that Parker was supplied with these pencil mechanisms by A.T. Cross pursuant to a licensing agreement; Cross sold the rights to its patent for the mechanism, number 1,754,002 issued in 1930, in exchange for a contract to supply Parker with them.

Could it be that Cross also supplied just a few mechanisms to Sheaffer? Maybe. Here’s the Sheaffer and the Vacumatic completely stripped down for comparison:

They are similar, but on close examination, there are a couple intriguing differences between these two mechanisms:

The mechanism that came out of the Sheaffer, at top, has a translucent plastic bushing and a diamond-patterned area where the drive tube is press fit into place. Out of all the Parker mechanisms I’ve got in my parts bins (a couple hundred), not a single one has these characteristics: all of them, look like the one shown below. Sure, it’s possible that at some point over the last seventy years, someone could have modified a Sheaffer mechanism to accept a Cross/Parker mechanism . . . except that this is no ordinary Cross/Parker mechanism.

In my mind, I think there’s two possibilities. The first is that Cross made a play to supply Sheaffer with pencil mechanisms, modifying the test run to distinguish them from what Cross was selling to Parker, after the patent expired in 1944.

The alternative is an even more interesting possibility: that Sheaffer itself reverse-engineered the Cross mechanism for a few tests after the patent expired.

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