Sunday, June 25, 2017

Withers' patent: an X-Patent discovery


On December 15, 1836 a fire destroyed the records of the US Patent Office. Until five months before the fire, US patents had not been numbered. After the fire, the unnumbered pre-fire patents were retroactively given numbers with an added "X", and are known as "X-Patents". For most X-Patents we have only brief summary descriptions, along with the date of issue and the name and place of residence of the patentee. Of these thousands of lost patents, five were for mechanical pencils. Only one of the five lost pencil patents could be reconstructed through reference to surviving pencils made under that patent and so marked.


We can now add one more with the discovery of a combination pen and pencil in silver made under US patent X9527, issued to Henry Withers on March 19, 1836. Just about all that we previously knew about Withers' patent can be read in this brief entry as published in the Journal of the Franklin Institute, vol. 18, November 1836, pp. 391-2 (a virtually identical entry also appears in the Journal of the American Institute, vol. 2, February 1837, p. 260):
For an improvement in combined Pen and pencil cases; Henry Withers, an alien, who has resided two years in the United States; city of New York, March 19.
For this pen and pencil case, the two instruments are to be used at the same end, either of them being protruded at pleasure. The pencil holder, with its ordinary adjustments, slides through the tubular pen holder, and the claim is made to "a pencil holder of any known or convenient structure, made so as to pass through, or by the pen holder, in his said combination."
The description isn't very helpful, leaving out any details of "his said combination". Fortunately, our rediscovered pencil can now serve as a patent model. Below is the pencil nozzle extended. Clearly visible is the slot to accommodate the rivets that attach the sliding ring to the nozzle carrier inside the barrel, entirely conventional in construction.



The arrangement is shown with the nozzle retracted in the photo above. Note the notch in the top edge of the barrel slot, and the little nub in the notch. This is what is novel about Withers' design.


To extend the nib holder, the nub is pulled down with a fingernail, as shown above, and then pushed down the slot, as shown below. The nib holder is tubular, so it can pass over the pencil nozzle, with a longitudinal slot cut just below the nub, so that when the nib holder is rotated by pushing the nub into the notch, the slot in the nib holder lines up with the slot in the barrel.


Who was Henry Withers? The 1836 patent report states that he had then been living in the United States for two years, but this is inconsistent with what we find in Longworth's New York city directories. Withers first appears in the Longworth's for 1833-34 (p. 659: "Withers Henry, pencilcasemaker 157 Broadway up stairs") and continues to be listed through the 1837-38 issue (p. 678), always as a pencil case maker. He is listed in the same fashion in another directory, New York As It Is, 1837, p. 92. He must be the same Henry Withers who on March 31, 1831 became a partner in the pioneer pencil company of Addison & Co. There are no other New Yorkers of the period with the same name, let alone working in the same trade, and our Henry Withers' 157 Broadway address was previously (though relatively briefly) that of Addison & Co.

Withers received a silver medal at the 1836 American Institute Fair "for a most beautiful specimen of gold and silver pencil cases." (Journal of the American Institute, vol. 2, November 1836, p. 87; December 1836, p. 149). A more specific mention of Withers' invention appears in a list of items on exhibit at the Repository of the American Institute, on Broadway (Journal of the American Institute, vol. 1, July 1836, p. 560):


There is also a passing mention in a letter of December 26, 1836 which makes reference to a gold pen/pencil presented "on behalf of Mr. Henry Withers of New York".


I have only found a few advertisements for Withers' pencils. The one above ran in the New York Herald, January 12, 1837, p. 1, col. 4; another ran on January 7.


Withers did not ply his trade in New York for long. The auction announcement above ran in the Morning Courier and New York Inquirer, February 12, 1839, p. 3, col. 8, offering for sale "The Patent of the late Henry Withers, pencil case maker . . . Mr. Withers manufactured some pencil cases under his patent, and it is believed that the value of his improvement is understood by those engaged in the business."

The above notice of Withers' death at the age of 32 appeared in the Evening Post on Tuesday, December 19, 1837, p. 3. There is no mention of family or survivors. His wife, Mary, had died violently several months before, as reported in the Troy Daily Whig, Apr 18, 1837, p. 2, col. 2:


There can be little doubt about the identification, as the 414 Washington Street home address for Withers from Longworth's corresponds exactly with the Washington and Laight address of the death notice. That Mary Withers was born in England makes it likely that Henry Withers was, too, and that that was also where he learned his trade. It is possible that Withers became a US citizen before he died, as there is a petition for naturalization that was granted by the Marine Court of New York on April 12, 1837 to a Henry Withers, born in England, witnessed by Abraham D. Wilson of New York.

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