Friday, July 12, 2013

The first Waterman pencils

George Kovalenko has just posted a reference to the earliest mention of a Waterman-made mechanical pencil found to date. It appears in The American Stationer, November 26, 1921, p. 26:
[Waterman Boston store] Manager Chaplin is introducing to private trade a new pencil which he predicts will be a 1922 winner. It is of hard rubber, contains 18 inches of lead in six leads, light in weight, non-breakable, non-dentable and is equipped with a regulation Waterman pocket clasp.
Prior to this, the earliest mention I had found was this note in The Rotarian of March 1922, p. 142:
The eighth annual Press Breakfast of the Tampa Rotary Club, entertaining the editors of the state and distinguished visitors, was held February 8th. William Jennings Bryan, now of Florida, was the guest of honor. The breakfast was served to a crowd of more than 400 at the Tampa Bay Hotel . . . More than a hundred valuable prizes were given to the guests. . . Every person present received a Waterman automatic pencil and numerous other souvenirs.
Waterman president Frank D. Waterman was, of course, an active Rotarian, and owned the Fountain Inn in Eustis, Florida. What is not clear is if the pencil was yet in general release at the time of the Rotary event (the November 1921 citation is explicitly pre-release). One would think that Waterman would not have hesitated to release and promote such a promising product, yet there is a surprising paucity of mentions of the new pencil throughout 1922. It is only from 1923 on that ads and other references proliferate. The first mention of the pencil that I have been able to find after the Rotary reference is in The Jewelers' Circular of September 6, 1922, p. 156b, in a description of the Waterman exhibit at the American National Retail Jewelers' Association convention:
A general line of fountain pens and pencils were shown, but the display was arranged to demonstrate the possibilities of expensive pens in a jewelry store. Pens trimmed with solid gold and with gold trim set with diamonds up to a selling value of $250 were shown. Mr. Waterman takes pride in his pencil because it "looks like a pencil, feels like a pencil and writes like a pencil."
A full-page Christmas ad then appears on p. 120 of the September 20 issue, featuring "Waterman's Combination Writing Sets" (two ringtop sets are shown, one plain black with gold filled trim, the other silver Filigree). It is apparent that by this time Waterman was already producing pencils in all sizes and patterns.

Though it was published only in November, the brief profile of Waterman's new pencil that appeared in Business Equipment Topics, vol. 52, p. 252 may have been based upon an earlier company press release. The illustration certainly does seem to show one of the earlier examples of the new pencil.
Waterman's Automatic Pencil
The L. E. Waterman Company have entered the field of automatic metal pencils with a product which we illustrate herewith. The simplicity of the new product is shown by the fact that it has but six parts: barrel, hard rubber point section, cap, alluminum [sic] propeller case, lead propeller and lead magazine. Backed by reputation for good goods and national advertising, which will be undertaken soon, the Waterman Automatic pencil is offered with assurance of a demand which should prompt dealers to stock them.
We can hope that discovery of further records, many perhaps not yet digitized, will help fill in the chronology of the Waterman pencil. One big question, however, is raised not by the written record, but by actual early examples. In particular, there are Waterman pencils that are clearly early production, in appearance very like the earliest illustrations, with a mechanism that is peculiar and entirely distinct from the typical design as described by Gabriel Larsen's US patent 1,511,225, filed May 17, 1922 and issued Oct 14, 1924.

An example of one of these mystery pencils is shown above. The interior of the hard rubber barrel is threaded; a block with matching threads protrudes through the slot in the aluminum inner barrel and is attached to a propelling pin. When the nose cone, which is attached to the inner barrel, is turned, the block is pushed forwards. This would push the entire inner barrel out of the outer barrel, but it is held in place by the end cap, which screws into the inner barrel. This design is actually simpler and more easily serviced than the standard mechanism. All examples that I have seen, however, have a puzzling idiosyncrasy -- they appear to be left-handed: holding the pencil tip-upwards, one turns the nose cone counterclockwise to extend the lead, not clockwise. It must have been intended that the end cap be turned instead, since when assembled, the inner barrel, nose cone, and end cap all rotate together -- and turning the end cap clockwise (the same motion that turns the nose cone counterclockwise) to extend the lead does feel "correct" to a right-hander. This is certainly the way all crown-operated mechanisms work, epitomized by the market leader, the Eversharp, but it appears that the designers of this mystery pencil failed to anticipate that given both a turnable crown and a turnable cone, consumers would overwhelmingly reach for the cone.

I have not yet been able to find a patent that describes this mechanism, nor have I found an example with imprints that help much in dating. The temptation is to identify this as an early design, but caution is always wise. The fact that the Larsen patent application was filed only several months after Waterman began pencil manufacture may be telling, however. Would Waterman really have waited so long to file? And is it possible that publicizing the new pencil was put on hold for several months after the decision was made to redesign it in response to customer complaints that it was made backwards?

PS To be expanded upon later, but it should be noted that while fountain pens and mechanical pencils were occasionally sold together from an early date, this remained the exception until Wahl, after acquiring Boston, began to systematically market pens and pencils as sets. Prior to this, few companies that made fountain pens made mechanical pencils, and even long after pen-pencil sets became the norm in the 1920s, the extent of specialization was great enough that most penmakers continued to buy pencil mechanisms from established mechanical pencil firms.

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