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.