Monday, December 15, 2014

Layer Upon Layer of Wicked Cool

This one had me all stirred up the moment I saw it, for several reasons:

For starters, just look at this thing. The barrel is enameled metal and looks more like a cartridge from a machine gun than it does a pencil. Starting at the nose, the cone screws off to reveal something pretty close to an Autopoint or Dur-O-Lite:

Except with this example, the only way to advance the lead is by removing the nose and manually screwing that rod a little farther into the nose . . . there’s nothing inside the barrel to engage the end of that threaded pushrod.

Working up the barrel, there’s a paper label or decal that tells a bit more of the story:

"Adding Pencil Co. / St. Louis, Mo. U.S.A. / Patent Applied For." And the name is repeated on that clip. That clip! Holy cow, what a clip!

Now let’s get to the next level of cool -- this pencil came complete in the box with instructions:

Granted, a disturbing proportion of these instructions explain how using this device is easier than just adding numbers in your head . . . or on a piece of paper with a pencil that doesn’t have all this baggage attached. Sure, there’s quite a bit of Rube Goldberg wrapped up in this one, but after I read the directions I did figure out how it’s supposed to work.

Say you want to add seven to the total. Holding the pencil’s nose with your left hand, see what letter lines up with the number 7, then turn the barrel until that letter lines up with zero – at the top, the number 7 will appear in the window:

After that, you can then continue to add number after number the same way, and ratchets inside the pencil will carry the one for you each time the zero passes by. The disks on this pencil will count up to 209 – but it only adds numbers less than 10. Useless? Maybe a little bit, but it does work like a charm. And cool? You bet – and on the next level of cool, even a little more cool than its relatives:

That’s the "Houk Adding Pencil" from page 90 of The Catalogue and featured here about three years ago ( and an unmarked adding pencil with many of the same characteristics that I believe was made by the same folks as made the Houk (

That decal on the barrel of the Houk Adding Pencil Co. is just like the one on the Adding Pencil Company, and since they both originate from St. Louis, there’s just too many similarities not to conclude that there was some relationship between the two.

Which brings me to the next level of what’s cool here. About all I know about the Houk is that it was probably made in the 1920s or so – I’ve never been able to find out anything about a "Houk Adding Pencil Co.." But when I searched for just an "Adding Pencil Company" in St. Louis, I found it. And it was much, much earlier than I expected:

This article, from the August 5, 1876 issue of Scientific American, profiles the latest new thing: a "recently patented adding pencil, the device of Messrs. Smith & Potts, of Verdi, Nevada." "For further information," the article concludes, "address the Adding Pencil Company, St. Louis, Mo."

I also found an advertisement for the new pencil, which appeared in an 1878 issue of Scribner’s Monthly (it’s hard to tell which one, because in the process of scanning the periodical some of the pages, including this one, got a little scrambled).

Since the Scientific American article mentions a patent date of April 4, 1876, it didn’t take long to find patent number 175,775, issued to Marshall M. Smith and Frederick W. Potts:

And the best and coolest part of all is that you won’t find this patent in my book. Why is that a good thing? Because it brings home again the point that patent research isn’t anywhere near finished. Sure, the patents indexed under the writing instruments classification have been done before, and there’s not likely to be any surprises in that well-trodden territory.

But not this one. Patent number 175,775 isn’t indexed under classification 401, but in class 235, subclass 64; that’s the classification for "Registers: adding pencils." While there is some cross-pollenation in this category, with several of the patents indexed there also being found in classification 401, as for this one and many of the others in this category, no amount of searching in all the right places would turn this one up. In the coming weeks, I’m looking forward to sifting through these to see what else might be lurking in an obscure little corner of the patent office in which I would never have thought to look!

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