Monday, December 22, 2014

The Pencil That Isn't

Joe Nemecek asked me some months ago if I had ever heard of a "John Birch" pencil. I hadn’t:

The spring-loaded button on the rear end opens the jaws, which close and clamp around a piece of lead when the button is released – exactly like an Eagle Automatic. But there are two problems:

‘John Birch’s U.S. Patent / Apr. 13 69 May 23 76." First, the patent dates, clearly issued in the U.S., predate the Eagle Automatic. Second? Neither of these patents are in my book!

I panicked a bit at first. The Eagle Automatic was truly a groundbreaking innovation, one which continues to be in production to this day in the form of its many clutch-operated leadholder progeny. If Eagle copied it from someone else, that would be as earth-shattering a revelation as revelations get in my little world – and I missed the patent completely?

I felt a bit better when I found the patents. Yes, John Birch’s device operates and holds lead just like an Eagle Automatic. Yes, it predated the Eagle Automatic, and yes, it was patented in the United States.

It was not, however, a pencil.

In the days before battery-powered watches, a key was required in order to wind or adjust many timepieces. Birch’s invention allowed for the jaws to be opened to a variety of sizes, making it a more universal invention.

The fact that both Joe and I mistook John Birch’s device for a pencil begs an intriguing question. Birch was from New York, New York – right where Eagle’s founders were located. A universal watch key would have been ubiquitous at the time. The diameter of Eagle Automatic leads is about the same as what you’ll find in the wood pencils Eagle was making before the company’s first foray into mechanical pencils.

At some serendipitous moment, did Emil Berolzheimer, Claes Boman or Joseph Hoffman sit in Eagle’s office and stick a piece of lead into a Birch watch key to hold it for writing? Could it be that the Eagle Pencil Company did not truly invent a mechanical pencil, but instead only found a new use for a watch key?

1 comment:

Chthulhu said...

Thank you, Jon! I've been puzzling over one of the ones in the second patent image since I received it, trying to figure out how it could ever be useful as a pencil.

Now all I need is a key-wound watch and a chain and a vest ...