Technological marvels –  lowly & underappreciated pencil sharpener

Technological marvels – lowly & underappreciated pencil sharpener

We don’t spend much time thinking about the little bits of technology that make life easier, do we? Here’s a case – the pencil sharpener. When was the last time you thought about one, other when you couldn’t find it and cursed the blunt point on your pencil?  Here’s my favourite:

photo of Staedtler pencil sharpener

Best pencil sharpener around – the Staedtler

The little metal Staedtler sharpener. I own 5 of them, including 2 hole, single hole and covered sharpeners. Oh and I have 2 of their beautiful mechanical pencils and about 20 of the Mars Lumograph pencils. I have a thing for tidy, beautiful examples of technology that works. I also have a thing for Staedtler. The first time I saw a Staedtler sharpener, I coveted it. I was in the library and watched, with envy as someone whipped out a little perfect work of technological art and sharpened pencils. I leaned over the table and asked him where he got it.  I was awestruck. When I finally found one I bought it. It was beautiful.  The little metal body makes it durable – can’t tell you how many of those dreaded little plastic ones I’ve crushed over the years.  And quite honestly, the plastic sharpeners are crap, they break off the point because the angle of the blade is often just off enough that it gouges out chunks of pencil. The little Staedtler shaves off thin slivers of wood and hones pencil leads to a perfect point. Maybe I should just retitle this “Ode to a pencil sharpener” and be done with it.  The angle and quality of the blade, durability of the casing, the ridges on the sides to make holding it easier – everything about the sharpener is “right”.

My mini love affair with Staedtler pencil sharpeners (and pencils) sparked a bit of curiosity about the evolution of sharpeners. While searching, I found some intriguing early patents for pencil sharpeners and references to the first practical design. Bernard Lassimonne, a French mathematician, is credited with receiving the first patent for a pencil sharpener.  I’m searching for a copy of it, but I’m a bit hindered by my disgraceful French. He evidently took an ad out in Le Constitutionnel, a French newspaper, sometime in 1829 to promote his invention. I’m also searching through the newspaper’s archives and hope to find the ad, but … it may take me a long time to find it.  Although I’m having little luck with my initial search, I have found what I think would have been the coolest sharpener ever – the G. H. Park pencil sharpener and lead protector: Patent #193,545, Patented July 24, 1877. You can see the original patent here.

Here’s one view of it, from the patent papers:

Drawing of G. H. Park's pencil sharpener from his 1877 patent

Drawing of G. H. Park’s pencil sharpener from his 1877 patent

In 1877, George Park, of New York State  “invented a new and valuable improvement in pencil-sharpeners” and it’s pretty damned cool:

“This little instrument is intended to remain on the pencil while in use and until the pencil is consumed.

It also forms a point-protector, as it can be pulled down sufficiently far to bring the point of the pencil within the sharpener, and when the pencil is to be used it is readily pushed out again, the spring of the metal holding the instrument at any point on the pencil.

The instrument thus forms a combined sharpener and point protector, and it can be manufactured at a very trifling cost, and is simple, durable, and effective in operation. It adapts itself to any-sized pencil, and is not liable to be lost, as the spring of the metal holds it with sufficient tension or friction on the pencil.”

Image from patent papers for the pencil sharpener

Image from patent papers for the pencil sharpener

Here’s another view that offers a better idea of how it fits on a pencil:

So, you slip the sharpener onto the pencil, it automatically expands or contracts to fit the body and, as you shave the pencil down, will hold the lead point so you don’t snap it off by accident. It’s like hybrid mechanical pencil when you think about it.  No more searching for your sharpener – it’s always attached.  Might be a bugger if you lose your pencil though. I’ve looked around to see if it was ever produced and can’t’ find any examples. Maybe it was one of those great ideas on paper that didn’t translate to real life. There were a number of similar designs that promoted “ever point” sharpeners and a couple made it to market. But not a sign of this one. Kind of a pity really.

Visit my Facebook page and hit the Like button if you want to see more old patents. I’ll be exploring more over the coming months. If you have a favourite, drop me a line (either below in the comments field) or on the Bitter Grounds Facebook page