Friday, January 17, 2014

A major Waterman history discovery

This week, George Rimakis and Daniel Kirchheimer have published a real blockbuster concerning the very beginnings of Lewis Edson Waterman's involvement in fountain pens. Their 33-page article, "Blotting Out the Truth", can be downloaded here in .pdf form.

A number of us have spent years digging into Waterman's origins; this is the great breakthrough. It has long been appreciated that most of the "official" stories were unreliable, if not pure fabrications: the ink blot; Waterman having to be persuaded to try advertising; Waterman moving straight from insurance to pens. As it turns out, Waterman ended up in the pen business almost by accident. It seems he was hired to sell the fountain pens of one Frank Holland, a Connecticut inventor whose backers had set him up in business in New York City. Holland was volatile, and after several weeks there was some sort of blowup and Holland walked out, leaving his backers in the lurch. Waterman then stepped in, fitting up Holland's pens with an improved feed. Success came rapidly, and Holland was soon forgotten.

While the authors describe what followed as a deliberate coverup, I'm not so certain. As I posted in a Fountain Pen Board thread:
I think that the case is pretty clear for the active shaping of the founding narrative after LEW's [Lewis Edson Waterman's] death. What happened during LEW's lifetime, however, is rather more complicated -- and interesting. No doubt that LEW was an aggressive operator, yet I'm not sure that his reticence about how he got into the pen business was entirely calculating and self-serving. Though Holland's backers might have felt that Waterman stole Holland's success, from the story as reconstructed, it seems Waterman was guilty of nothing more than picking up the pieces of what Holland threw away. And even then, the success he made of it was in very large degree due to his abandonment of Holland's feed, so there really is no question of unjust exploitation of any of Holland's patents. Nonetheless, there still would have been ample room for unpleasantness, and I wonder if LEW's silence about Holland had as much to do with discretion and decorum as anything else. It would have been impossible to talk about what really happened without making Holland look bad, and that would have reflected badly upon Waterman: one just didn't air dirty laundry in that way back then, and as Holland continued to self-destruct, it would additionally have been perceived as kicking a man when he was down -- however much his downfall was his own doing.
ADDENDUM: In case you rushed out and downloaded Rimakis and Kirchheimer's article as soon as you saw this post, do go back and download it again. The latest version has quite a bit more material on Frank Holland, and some additional illustrations.

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