Friday, June 7, 2013

Dissecting the Dictator

When this silver-overlaid Dictator fountain pen turned up at this year's Chicago Pen Show auction, a couple of thoughts went through my head. One was that this was a very well-made pen with a quirky design that few other bidders were likely to recognize: an ink-making sleeve-filler intended to be filled with water, with a powdered ink reservoir in the section. The other was that it had been many years since I had worked on a Dictator, and that while I did not remember the gory details, it had been an absolute beast to resac.

Nothing daunted, I brought the pen home and took it apart. And for good measure, I took apart two other Dictators I happened to have around the shop, photographing all three and taking notes. It was as beastly as I had remembered -- but now the details are recorded for posterity and future repairs should be much easier!
The picture above shows a plain black chased hard rubber Dictator that came apart nicely, albeit with lots of slow and gentle persuasion. You can see that the section consists of two parts that screw together, allowing access to the ink reservoir. What you can't see is that the barrel is fully lined with metal -- the sleeve-filler housing extends all the way through the barrel to its mouth -- and that the back half of the section is made of celluloid, and is especially thin-walled right where it gets the most stress during disassembly. Breakage here is extremely common, and since all other non-metal parts of these pens are conventional black hard rubber, it's all too easy to overdo it with the heat, further multiplying the chances of bad results. The picture below illustrates typical breakage, though in this example the broken part is hard rubber, not celluloid.
In order to make a repair with sufficient strength, a brass tubing liner was turned to fit and was epoxied inside. Luckily there was plenty of clearance between the inner walls of the ink-mixing chamber and the narrow ink reservoir tube inside. The inside of the brass tube was then given a protective coating of black-tinted epoxy to prevent direct contact between ink and metal. On reassembly, the inner walls of the barrel lining were cleaned and the mating surfaces lightly waxed to prevent them from seizing up.

But what about disassembly, you ask? Well, you may get lucky and succeed in wiggling out the section in the conventional manner. A bit of naphtha (lighter fluid) into the joint to loosen things up, heat applied to the metal of the filler housing, and a gentle patient touch. A safer approach, however, is to use a tube sized to fit over the sac nipple to apply pressure from the filler housing end, pushing the section out from the inside (unscrew and set aside the front section assembly first: this will prevent the ink reservoir from being damaged by being forced against the back of the feed). Indeed, this is the only approach that can be used if the section plug is already broken off inside the the barrel.

Even when pushing from the inside, however, naphtha and heat may not be enough to loosen things up. The pen with the gold filled overlay shown above had shellac all over its interior. In this case the broken-off plug was hard rubber, so I could soak the assembly in alcohol to free it up. More often, the plug is celluloid, so the best option is ammonia, which must be carefully kept off the exterior of a hard rubber barrel. Stand the barrel vertically, threads downwards, and drop the ammonia inside the filler housing so that it collects around the sac nipple, soaking the joint between liner and plug. Note that there is a threaded tubular plug that goes into the end of the sac nipple. It is reverse-threaded, and only needs to be removed if the powdered ink reservoir is to be replaced. This is a feature common to all Dictator pens.

The Dictator Pen Company was incorporated in New York City early in 1920 and then reorganized in August 1921 as a Delaware corporation (the company was always based in New York; the Delaware incorporation would have been for legal purposes). How any changes in the company's structure or ownership relate to production of their pens is not entirely clear, but a September 1921 advertisement states that the pen has "just been introduced, the first advertising appearing in New York July 14th." A note appearing in the February 11, 1922 issue of United States Investor gives more details about the company, including this:
The Dictator Company is using the plant of the Standard Vulcanite Pen Company of which (Dictator Vice-President John Douglas) Turner is president. It has been understood that the company is being merged with the Dictator Company. The Standard Vulcanite Pen Company has been in existence for some two years [in fact, it had been incorporated in 1913 - D.]. Opinions differ as to the merits of the Dictator Pen. Stock of the Dictator Company is being sold by Wheten and O'Dare Inc. Thousands of dollars must be expended in advertising a new article before any kind of a demand for it can be said to exist. Some money is being spent in advertising the Dictator pen but we believe that more attention is being given to the sale of stock at this time. In view of the fact that the merits of the pen must be proven over a period of time and a demand for it built up we cannot consider the stock of the company other than a doubtful speculation.
The company does not appear to have survived for much beyond this. In the Schenectady Gazette of January 11, 1927, the business section published a reader's inquiry: "I should like to have you tell me something about Dictator Fountain Pen stock of which I bought in 1922". The response: "The stocks are worthless . . . Dictator Fountain Pen was a hopeless promotion and never made a scratch on the surface of Wall Street."
A number of US patents relate to the Dictator -- 1433325, 1443515, and 1450398, in particular -- but oddly enough it is British patent 178406 that most closely describes the pen as actually manufactured. Aside from the components relating to the powdered ink reservoir, Dictator pens are nearly identical in construction to the sleeve-fillers produced by the Standard Vulcanite Pen Company.
The inventor and main promoter of the Dictator pen was Arthur Winter. Dictator production did not last long, but Winter kept on inventing, receiving patents for other items as late as 1957. There appears to be no connection between the American Dictator pen company and the British-made Dictator button-fillers.

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