Thursday, June 8, 2023

Making safety pens yet safer

A customer was recently asking about safety pen leakage. A safety with good seals should be as leakproof as any fountain pen could be. That doesn't mean, however, that it can't leave a mess quite without any leakage. One example is how ink can end up spattering in tiny droplets when the nib is extended if there happens to be a film of ink spanning the barrel opening when the pen is uncapped, like the soap solution across a bubble-blowing wand.

My customer's issue was something a bit different, though. It seems it was a matter of ink sticking to the plug inside the cap. When the cap is tightened the plug is pressed firmly against the barrel mouth, as can be seen in the photos above and below. Yet as the closeup below shows, any ink that ends up sticking to the face of the plug is going to drip into the threads once the cap is removed and set on its side. And from the cap threads it will soon enough end up on the barrel threads and thence on the writer's fingers.

I've never seen any discussion of how to deal with this issue -- neither in original instructions and repair manuals, nor by modern-day collectors or repairmen. So here is a solution I came up with: 
Moisten a cotton swab with a little alcohol and clean off the face of the plug, then once it is dry use another swab to give it a thin coat of wax. This should greatly reduce the ability of ink to stick to the plug, and is similar to how ink bottle caps are typically equipped with a sealing disk of ink-shedding plastic.

For anyone contemplating making new safety pens, I would suggest making the plug out of a modern material that is inherently ink-shedding. Teflon immediately comes to mind, though acetals such as Delrin are also quite hydrophobic and much easier to machine.

Monday, May 1, 2023

Research in progress: rewriting the history of the first retracting-nib safety pens


I recently promised Pennant editor Jim Mamoulides a few short articles on early safety pens. Over the years I'd managed to accumulate some interesting examples by Horton, Moore, and Caw's -- the "Big Three" in this rather obscure byway of fountain pen history -- and it seemed as if it would be easy to throw together some simple descriptive articles.

Silly me. "Can of worms" doesn't begin to describe what I've opened up. It turns out that a lot of what has been repeated for decades about the first safeties simply doesn't add up. Nor is it proving any easier to figure out what actually did happen. Clearly there are huge missing pieces to this particular puzzle, which is why I am putting this post out here in the hopes that others may have information that I might have overlooked -- though I suspect the answers I'm seeking are not to be found in any online records currently available, as I've been quite diligent in searching all the standard databases, free and paid.

Here are some of the more interesting issues I've identified to date:
  • The Caw's safety was introduced in 1895. Ads and imprints reference patent US533942 of 2/12/1895. No one seems to have remarked that the only claim in that patent is for the nib and feed arrangement. In fact, the pen shown is a sliding-action safety of the sort described in Moore's patent of 1896! 
  • The key patent for a safety with a turning internal helix was Peck & O'Meara's US523234 of 7/17/1894. And in 1895 the Horton Pen Company was just getting started after having acquired Peck & O'Meara's entire manufacturing operation -- including, it would appear, their patents. How could Caw's have gotten away with such a brazen infringement? The more I think about it, the more impossible it seems. Surely F. C. Brown was a licensee, though no mention of the Peck & O'Meara patent appears in Caw's ads, catalogs, or imprints. Seeing how Brown didn't lose an opportunity to trumpet all the patents he had (on later Caw's safeties the patent imprints run almost all the way around the barrel, headed by "F. C. BROWN PATENTS") I can only surmise that the flip side of this was an aversion to acknowledging any patents other than his own. [UPDATE: Upon closer examination, I can now see how Brown might have been able to evade the Peck & O'Meara patent at least in part by using a single-slot mechanism and a separate internal sleeve to carry that slot]
  • It has been claimed that Caw's bought up all the assets of the Horton Pen Company after it failed. I can find no evidence of any such failure. Horton appears in New Haven city directories all the way through 1901, after which it was acquired -- but by Frazer & Geyer, not Brown. There are plenty of retailer ads for Horton pens through 1899 at least as well as other mentions indicating production overlapping with that of Caw's for several years.
  • If Caw's was a licensee of Horton, as the notes above suggest, was Horton also supplying pens or pen parts to Caw's? Caw's was already producing the Dashaway so did not necessarily need a new subcontractor. On the other hand, making the safety spirals was something new. It may be significant that the interior structure of Caw's and Horton safety barrels is different, the straight tracks being cut directly into the barrel interior for the Horton, but cut into an inserted sleeve for the Caw's. 
  • Whether or not Horton was doing any manufacturing for Caw's, it does appear to have been doing so for Morris W. Moore during his short-lived effort at independent pen production, prior to selling out to Cushman. The evidence for this is just one pen: the unmarked safety that I shared in a private Facebook group a while back that is virtually identical to what is shown and claimed in Moore's first 1896 patent. There are a couple of construction details that differ from the patent diagrams but which correspond to peculiarities of early Hortons, including near-interchangeable caps.
  • The one patent date that appears on Caw's safeties that doesn't reference one of Brown's inventions is Sep 8, 1896 -- the date of the two Moore patents assigned in part to F. C. Brown. It is likely the second that was actually used, which claims a tapered rather than a cylindrical barrel mouth bore. This raises the question of what relationship Brown had with Moore at the time that the 1896 patent-style pen was made (which could have been as early as late 1894). Did Brown provide any sort of assistance to Moore? Or was it nothing more than Brown paying Moore for patent rights?
  • It has also been claimed that Waterman acquired or licensed patents belonging to F. C. Brown for their own safeties. I can find no evidence for this, and it is noteworthy that no such patents are referenced in Waterman safety imprints where one would expect them.
  • It has been claimed that Caw's patent US612013 of 1898 was for the helical retraction mechanism, and that this patent was sold to Waterman. Except that's not what the patent claims: it is solely for an improvement to such mechanisms, where the driving peg is equipped with a rolling bearing to reduce wear.
  • The Nichols patent of 1903, referenced on the caps of older Wateman safety pens, doesn't seem to contain much that is novel aside from the inner cap plug closure.
  • Possible missing-link or offshoot models that I don't own but would like to be able to acquire or examine: Phelps Safety; Lincoln Safety; Atlantis.

Saturday, April 29, 2023

What's in a name? The Moore Fingertip

Collectors have long wondered about the naming of the Moore Fingertip. The streamlined nib assembly echoes the aesthetics of airplanes and rockets -- so why "Fingertip" (or "Finger Tip")?

Nearly thirty years ago I completely took apart a Fingertip nib assembly, and it immediately struck me that the "fingertip" reference might well have been to the design's feed. You don't really see it from the patent drawings, so I've been waiting until I had another Fingertip apart so I could finally photograph the parts properly so viewers can judge for themselves.

A few caveats: Moore ads don't explain the Fingertip name, nor does the utility patent despite its unusually discursive descriptive text. For now this is a bit of a guess: that at some point in the design's evolution, the resemblance of the feed's narrow end to a fingertip pressing against the underside of the nib was noted and the name stuck.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

A Waterman 412½VPSF with a surprise inside

Waterman's first lever-fillers have been a longstanding focus here, but it is only recently that I have started to look into the chronology of the vest-pocket size ½V models. Paradoxically, collectors often take the most successful designs for granted.

In the case of Waterman's small full-overlay ringtops, no one seems to have asked when these seemingly ubiquitous models were introduced -- and it's not a question that is easily answered. The first ½VPSF overlay models had exposed hard rubber barrel ends and were the same length as their non-overlay equivalents, unlike their smaller and shorter covered-end successors. The first ads that I have found for the smaller covered-end models are from December 1916, yet while they are prominently displayed they are not described as new nor in any way singled out.

I'm getting ahead of myself, though. The "End Covered" or "E. C." series story will be the subject of a future post. Right now let's take a look at what must be a very early example of one of these "E. C." ringtops that came to me via Myk Daigle. For the most part it differs only in small details from later versions, but not so inside. This is not the usual PSF sprung pressure bar -- it is the distinctive design used for Waterman coin-fillers.

Could this be an old replacement? Possible, but improbable. Though my sample size is limited, all of the other small PSF "E. C." overlays I've handled have retained their original two-piece sprung pressure bars, suggesting that the sprung bars were quite robust. And a coin-filler pressure-bar assembly is a pretty esoteric spare part for the typical repairman to have lying around. On the other hand, why would Waterman have shipped out a lever-filler without a proper sprung pressure bar? This pen has a typical PSF lever that does not toggle into the pressure bar, so if the sac started to take a set, there would be nothing to prevent the pressure bar from rattling annoyingly inside the barrel. All in all a mystery, and not one likely ever to be answered definitively.

Monday, December 12, 2022

A Moore sleeve-filler in safety disguise

Most collectors think of Moore as a rather staid company, especially in the hard rubber era. For the company's first couple of decades, it's pretty much only their classic safety pens, virtually all in black hard rubber. But there are exceptions -- rare, but all the more intriguing as a result.

The pen shown above would seem to be yet another Moore safety. Upon closer examination, though, it turns out to be something completely different: a sleeve-filler, and one of notably distinctive design. 

The sleeve that covers the barrel opening doesn't slide. Rather, it is retracted by being turned: it is threaded onto the end of the barrel. Other aspects of the pen's construction are similar to what is seen in  Moore's safeties.

The sprung pressure bar is stamped "LICENSED UNDER/PATENT 781.649" -- Robert A. Hamilton's US patent of 1905. So far I have not found any mention of other pens made under this patent, nor indeed any mention of this particular model in Moore catalogs or advertising (noting for accuracy's sake that the company was still called the American Fountain Pen Company at the time of its manufacture). There is an old thread at the FPN website discussing thumb-fillers of various kinds, where this patent was noted without any actual examples being identified.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Waterman PSF chronology

When did Waterman first offer lever-fillers for sale, and what are the likely dates for the various design changes in the first few years of production? This is very much still a work in progress, but we're far enough along that I'd like to assemble and share the evidence compiled to date.

Though the first known appearance of lever-fillers in Waterman ads isn't until mid-March of 1915, the testimony in the Chapmans vs Waterman litigation indicates that they were put into production anywhere from a few to several months prior. We also have some circumstantial evidence from two patents, US1197360 (application Aug 17, 1914, issued Sep 5, 1916) and US1156748 (application Mar 19, 1915, issued Oct 12, 1915). The first patent is a big one, covering the classic Waterman lever box -- but it also covers a distinctive form of pressure bar with a spring attached by a rivet and anchored in the barrel with a sort of C-shaped base akin to that later used by Sheaffer. The second patent is more limited, covering the toggled two-piece sprung pressure bar commonly found in PSF-series pens.

In a blog post from 2012 an early PSF was discussed which has a pressure bar and lever box identical to those described in the first patent (second issued, but first applied for). Inasmuch as it predates the much more common toggled pressure bar of the second patent, it was most probably made between August 1914 and March 1915, and suggests that the first date may be taken as the probable start for Waterman lever-filler manufacture. As for the end of PSF production, my best estimate so far is late April to early May of 1917 for the changeover to the 5x model designation. That leaves us with a total PSF production span of two years and eight months, of which the first five to eight months might be regarded as test marketing leading up to a soft launch. The lack of advertising is telling, as is the extreme rarity of the earliest first-patent pens.

Setting aside the earliest PSFs for the moment, the series has two major design changes which we would like to be able to date. One is the change from narrow raised barrel threads to flat threads; the other is the change from the two-piece sprung pressure bar to the classic Waterman one piece unsprung bar toggled to the end of the lever. Both changes occurred at close to the same time, though the coincidence does not appear to be exact. Advertising images give us some indication of when raised threads were discontinued, as flat threads begin to show up in Waterman ads from October of 1916 and possibly somewhat earlier. There is some inconsistency, however, as raised threads do sporadically appear in later ads, likely the result of reuse of printing blocks. 

Ads are no help in dating the change in pressure bar design; we have to rely upon the evidence of the pens themselves. That evidence is not just individual, but also collective -- that is to say, we can glean some idea of what was made when by comparing the how many pens survive with what specific features. A full census of PSF pens would be an ambitious undertaking. What I have done so far is much more modest, taking my sample from pens in my parts boxes plus pens that have been through my catalog inventory over the past 25 years. 

This sample yields a total of 73 pens with raised threads vs. 36 with flat threads, almost exactly a 2:1 ratio. Given our best guess above that full production of PSFs ran only for some 24 to 27 months, and assuming that the rate of production increased over that span, we can surmise that the flat thread PSFs were produced for no more than 8 or 9 months and probably less -- entirely consistent with the evidence of the ad images.

Examination of our pens also suggests that all raised-thread pens were originally manufactured with two-piece sprung pressure bars. While some of our parts pens have unsprung bars, they also have later replacement levers. Among the pens in better condition, no unsprung bars are to be found. Among the flat-thread PSFs in our sample, however, a substantial number have the sprung bar. It must be noted that there is a discrepancy in the ratios between the pens from the parts boxes and those from catalog inventory, with the six out of 24 ratio of the former probably more trustworthy than the five out of nine of the latter (pens with unusual features such as sprung pressure bars are much more likely to be acquired and listed for sale). If so, introduction of the unsprung pressure bar would have postdated the introduction of flat threads by some two months, or a quarter of the overall flat-thread production span.

There is one more data point, however, that may call for some adjustment of our timeline. This is a single flat-thread pen with an unsprung pressure bar with a toggled lever with early-style imprints, with the 1903 Barnes patent date on one side and "PAT. APLD. FOR" on the other [see Addendum below]. Every other PSF with the unsprung bar that I've seen has the September 5, 1916 date opposite the 1903 date. The existence of this pen strongly suggests that introduction of the unsprung bar predates the issuance of the 1916 patent, while its rarity suggests that the interval between the two events was extremely short. By that line of reasoning, we'd be looking at later August to early September 1916 -- whereas our reckoning from total numbers points more towards late October to early November. 

Can these estimates be reconciled? Perhaps the new unsprung bar wasn't adopted all in one go, but instead was quietly introduced alongside the older sprung bar, only replacing it over a period of a few months. A further consideration is the possibility that our numbers for the flat-thread PSFs are skewed by the greater vulnerability of the two-part pressure bar to damage. Replacement by an unsprung bar would be undetectable as long as it took place before the levers were redesigned to leave off the patent dates entirely. So perhaps our catalog sample isn't so far off after all, and the adoption of the unsprung bar stretched over a period closer to four months than to two.

One investigation inevitably leads into another. While wrestling with the bigger questions about PSF chronology, I realized that there was also a more limited design change in the line which would prove more far-reaching. The redesign of the overlay versions of the 12½ VPSF so that they were shorter than their plain equivalents and with overlays that extended all the way over the barrel end set the pattern for all the overlay 52½V models for the next decade and a half, as well as all the full-length LEC models. This is still a work in progress, but from what I have been able to find so far, the earliest appearance of the redesigned x12½ VPSF pens is in December 1916. They show up in multiple Christmas advertisements without any fanfare, indeed without any acknowledgment that they might be in any way novel. Though the sample size is too small to give it much weight, of the eight x12½ VPSF that have gone through my inventory, three were the redesigned version. And for whatever reason, Waterman's 1919 catalog still shows one solitary old-style vest pocket overlay without the "E. C." (end covered) designation, a 452½V Filigree. Leftover old stock? Continuing demand? We may never know.

Saturday Evening Post, Dec 9, 1916, p. 71

ADDENDUM: Here are some photos of the single example -- known to me -- of a PSF with the unsprung one-piece pressure bar and "PAT. APLD. FOR" lever imprint. Note that the pressure bar also bears a "PAT. APPLIED FOR" mark. Digging in my parts stock of Waterman pressure bars, I was able to find two other examples with this same mark.

I'm not sure why the pressure bar would have been imprinted. The pending patent application referenced on the lever would be the one for the Waterman lever box; the toggled connection between an unsprung pressure bar and the end of the lever would have been covered by the 1903 Barnes patent. Perhaps an application was filed for the tab that keeps the pressure bar from sliding out past the connection point with the lever, yet I'm not aware of any patent being issued for this feature (and if there were, it surely would have been stamped on later Waterman pressure bars).

Sunday, October 23, 2022

More American Stationer volumes available online

 It has been a while since I last checked, but digging into some 1920s Waterman research I found to my surprise that several volumes of the American Stationer that had formerly been snippet-only at Google Books are now fully readable, including volumes 92 through 99. In addition, quite a few volumes that had formerly been available only through Google Books are now also available through HathiTrust. The full master list here has been duly updated.

Friday, October 21, 2022

Waterman and the Barnes lever-filler patent

Pen history has largely been written by collectors rather than trained academic historians, so one often has to scramble to find solid references for what has become accepted knowledge. An example which recently sent me scrambling for documentation is Waterman's acquisition of John Barnes's lever-filler patent. For future reference, I will share the material I found in this post.

Firstly, let us note that there are two Barnes patents that are often confused with each other. The first is US726495, issued on April 28, 1903. The second is US738876, issued September 15, 1903. The first is referenced in the second, but with a misprint (725,495 for 726,495). Neither patent is for the use of a lever as a filling method per se, nor is the method by which the lever is attached to the barrel covered. As with Sheaffer's patents, there is much misunderstanding about what is claimed as original. Both Barnes and Sheaffer patented improvements to lever-fillers -- in Barnes's case, a pressure bar with an attachment to the barrel at the end and formed so as to be toggled to the end of the lever. The lever box was patented by Ferris, and had nothing to do with Barnes.

Both patents were initially assigned to W. F. and John Barnes Co. The exact date of their acquisition by Waterman I have not been able to establish as yet, but the following will help narrow down the range.

Earlier Waterman lever-fillers typically bear the date of the first Barnes patent on their levers, along with "PAT. APLD. FOR". And on March 13, 1916 Waterman filed for a disclaimer to this patent which was duly published in the US Patent Office Official Gazette of March 21, 1916.  The L. E. Waterman Company is there identified as "the assignee by mesne assignments".

1916 would also appear to have been the year that Barnes died, at least according to Edward F. Dunne's Illinois: The Heart of the Nation (1933). In volume 3, page 109, we read "John Barnes, who was also the inventor of a fountain pen which was sold to and is now being handled by the Waterman Fountain Pen Company, died in 1916, at the age of eighty-three years".

Also undated is the well-known anecdote from Walter A. Sheaffer's autobiography, in which he recounts (pp. 34-35):
"In the early days of the lever pen it was a novel device, but there was an old lever patent taken out by Barnes of Rockford, Illinois, that I could have bought for a few dollars; but this was one place where my patent attorney advised me wrong. He said, "It isn’t worth anything and I wouldn’t advise you to buy it." However, it was sold to/the L. E. Waterman Pen Company for about $100. This patent was the basis for the Waterman Pen Company to make a lever pen. As they were a very large concern, they showed lots of dealers a lever pen before we were able to get to them."
Indeed, the date of the Barnes patent appears on all early Waterman lever-fillers, even the very oldest examples known (see previous posts here and here) which likely date to the end of 1914 and certainly no later than the very beginning of 1915.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Remembering W. M. & C. -- and not for Nott


This lovely pencil arrived not long ago but to my frustration I could not recall what the letters "W. M & C" stood for. No luck with a Google search, nor checking Jon Veley's indispensible site. It was Jon who finally set me straight though, pointing me to . . . my own blog post here on Thomas Addison. Ouch.

At least I remembered that the "W" was for "Wilmarth". That alone should have sent me back to my research notes. Anyway, Wilmarth, Moffat & Curtis was the short-lived partnership that succeeded the partnership of Thomas Addison & Co. as of August 1, 1829. It apparently ended with the death of Jonathan Wilmarth on September 26, 1835, though another Wilmarth – William M. –  subsequently formed a new partnership with Addison, doing business as Addison, Wilmarth & Co. up until c. 1843. In 1849 Moffat and Curtis sailed for San Francisco, where Moffat won lasting fame among numismatists and California Gold Rush historians for his gold ingots and coins.

What first caught my eye about this pencil, though, was the seal end. It was clearly a portrait, not an idealized classical bust. Before the pencil arrived it seemed likely it might be someone prominent enough that someone might recognize the image. The task was considerably simplified, however, by the discovery upon arrival that the pencil had been engraved with the name, "Mrs. Howard Nott".

While the identification is for now tentative, it seems probable that this pencil belonged to Margaretta Matilda Stewart Bowers Nott (1810 – 1876), who in 1831 married Howard Nott (1809 – 1880), the son of polymath Eliphalet Nott (June 25, 1773 – January 25, 1866; described by Wikipedia as "a famed Presbyterian minister, inventor, educational pioneer, and long-term president of Union College, Schenectady, New York"). Though I have not yet been able to find any portraits of Howard Nott, pictures of his father show a decided resemblance to the profile of the pencil seal bust.

Margaretta Nott was buried in Brooklyn, at The Evergreens Cemetery on Bushwick Avenue. No photos online, but it is now on my list of historical graves to visit in the greater New York area.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

A gold pen from San Francisco


Having grown up in California, I have a special interest in pens made there. Especially appealing are those dating back to the 19th century and the Gold Rush era. Not many writing instruments were made on the West Coast back then, as manufacturing was concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest. So this dip pen was a lucky recent find with its gold nib marked "J. H./BAPTIS/S.F./5". 

John H. Baptis was a Civil War veteran who made and sold gold nibs in San Francisco from approximately the 1870s through 1900. I've not had time to do a thorough investigation, but in the San Francisco City Directory for 1878 there were but two listings under Gold Pen Manufacturers: Henry D. Pearce at 615 Montgomery, and Baptis at 328 Bush. By the 1880s Baptis was at 319 Kearny, where he appears to have remained as long as he remained in business. The Kearny address appears in the 1899 city directory, but in the October 31, 1900 Insurance Press it is recorded that a life insurance payout had been made for a J. H. Baptis of East Oakland (now Berkeley). 

Although the buildings in San Francisco are gone (319 Kearney in particular appears to have been lost in the 1906 earthquake and fire, as the building now on that site was built in 1907) Baptis's 1880 home at 1425 Milvia in Berkeley survives and was recently lovingly restored. You can read about it here.

The plain black hard rubber holder does not appear to be of West Coast manufacture. It is marked "F. M. LIBBY'S PAT. MAR.4.84." This would be US patent 294477 issued to Frederick M. Libby of Portland, Maine. It is a rather unusual design that proposes to add springiness to a nib by allowing it some movement rather that gripping it rigidly. 

UPDATE: Baptis appears in the Alameda County record of deaths as entry 267, 22 August 1900. He is recorded as 64 years 11 months and 15 days old, married white male, calculated birthday 7 Sep 1835. Tuberculosis is listed as cause of death; birthplace as New York.