I really enjoy using my Berol Chicago APSCO sharpener. As a small boy I’d remove the collection can and slowly turn the crank. I’d watch the cutters rotate around their axis and watch the entire assembly rotate around with the crank. Then I would insert a pencil to sharpen and watch it go at full speed! A huge mess would be made from the dust flying everywhere but the mess was half the joy too!
It’s amazing to me when I think about just how old this design is but how well it still works. Most, if not all, of today’s rotary pencil sharpeners follow this design. This is what a timeless design means to me. So just how old is this design? According to the online Early Office Museum this design came about during the early 1900s (check out their Antique Pencil Sharpener page). The site says that the A. B. Dick company was a granted a patent for a planetary geared pencil sharpener. There is a picture of this sharpener on that site. If you look closely you can almost see what looks like a date! Is that the date of product introduction? Or, could it be the date the patent was issued? I Google’d “A. B. Dick Pencil” and selected the Images search function. To my pleasant surprise I found some nice close ups of the sharpener (vs. some other pictures that could have appeared). One of the best comes from the Cowan’s Auctions site. I am including a local copy of the picture in this blog.
Now we see the date better. It looks like Mar 17th, 1896 or maybe 1898. With this date in hand we hand can start searching for the patent itself. The patent document can provide some insight on the design. It also reminds us of the state of technology at the time. The US Patent Office has no search capability for older patents because the patents are just scanned images of the paper documents. Google can help us once again here with their own patent search engine. It seems that Google ran an optical character recognition algorithm on these graphic images of the paper documents and created a searchable database! Bravo! Using their Advanced Patent Search page it’s pretty easy to narrow down the search criteria. Pick your date range and fill in the key words. After a few mouse clicks and keyboard taps I found US Patent 556,709. You can retrieve it from Google or download my local copy
But this sharpener isn’t of the design that ultimately prevailed in the 20th century. It was merely the start. There are two cutters which rotate around the pencil which is held stationary but the gears spin around and over the pencil. Notice that the cutters are not cylindrical either. They are circular and their centers are offset from each other. Still, George Ballou gets credit for this massive step forward. I say it is massive because we have to consider what was state of the art back then. Search around and you will see sharpeners that are nothing more than glorified disc sanders. The pencil would have to be carefully rotated at an angle to get a smooth, round, even cut. Now you can sort of “plug and grind”.
I think the big leap to what we know as the modern day sharpener occurred with US Patent 640,846 which was granted to John Webster on January, 9, 1900. You can retrieve the document from Google or download a local copy here. Webster made several improvements to Ballou’s design. First, Webster moved the gears to the frame of the sharpener. Now they sat in front of the pencil point rather than over the pencil body. Secondly, Webster replaced the circular grinders with a cylindrical cutter. The center of rotation of the two cutters we know of today and the center of the stationary pencil sit along the same line. This results in a very compact form factor. One of the first commercial implementations of this design was the Olcott Climax. According to the Early Office Museum, several other commercial implementation followed from companies such as Boston, APSCO, and Koh-I-Noor. The free market soon whittled down the competition down from a large handful of players to two major ones: APSCO and Boston. Over the decades many other sharpeners took on this design as their central core with incremental changes along the way. A second cutter was added. Multiple pencil diameters were possible with one sharpener. Collection cans were modular and easily removable. As this is now the year 2011, we can say that Webster’s design has lasted for 111 years!
It’s amazing to think how much influence Webster’s design had on the 20th century. Countless millions of school children all over the world sharpened their pencils with Webster’s design. This design sharpened the pencils of great writers, artists, designers, and scholars. Wars were fought, machines were built, and complex mathematical problems were solved with a sharpener like this near by no doubt. Even the electronic revolution (pun intended) leveraged this hearty mechanical design. How would have history shaped up without this design?