Probably the single most important quality of the Boston Ranger 55 is it’s ability to brilliantly sharpen a pencil to three different levels of sharpness with nothing more required from the user than to flick a lever and turn a crank. The Ranger 55 was not the first sharpener to offer the ability of choosing the sharpness of a pencil point. Inventors had been tackling this challenge since the 1800s. Some people want a super fine tip for detailed work with their light touch. Others, like myself, prefer a duller tip that is less fragile because our hands are heavier. Most of the ideas people came up with to selectively sharpen a pencil seem complicated and medieval compared to today’s working knowledge. The early sharpeners would have some strange system of angling and rotating the pencil against a grinding disc. Helical rotating sharpeners used complicated steps to change the spacing of the cutters and used additional auxiliary blades. What the inventors of the Ranger 55 did was essentially what Apple did with the iPod. There were lots of portable digital music players before the iPod but the user experience was clunky and harsh. Apple recognized the opportunity to offer a unified hardware/software/service experience back in the late 90s and early 2000s when no one else did. Within 10 years the iPod did to CDs what CDs did to vinyl. So, Apple wasn’t the first to make a portable digital music player. They simply did it better.
Anyone who follows that kind of path to success stands on the shoulders of those who fell before them. Creative Labs and Diamond Multimedia all had media players before the iPod was introduced but neither are around today in any significant force despite their initial success. We can trace a similar story of sharpeners. Many tried to do what the Ranger 55 does. Unfortunately, they disappeared in the pencil dust left behind by the Ranger 55.
Let’s begin with US patent 839,806 issued January 1st, 1907 to Frederick Edward Vesey Baines of Great Britain. Baines placed an adjustable stop pin in the path of the pencil as it is fed forward. Once the tip reaches the edge of the pin, the pencil can no longer be sharpened. With the pin all the way toward the sharpener frame, the pencil can be fed further which results in a narrower and finer tip. More of the cutters cut away at the pencil. With the pin all the way away from the frame, the pencil feeding is limited and the tip is blunter. This is a fine idea except the adjustment of the pin must be done inside the sharpener with the collection can removed. The pin does not have any preset stops so getting a repeatable setting is not always possible. Still, this was a good first step.
A significant leap was shown in US patent 2,438,628 which was granted on March 30th, 1948 to John A. Yerkes of the USA. Yerkes moved the adjustment of the stop mechanism to the outside of the sharpener. There is now a massive geared lever that allows the user to select the tip quality. The stop pin is now a stop blade that sits between the rotating helical cutters. In addition to stopping the pencil it also cuts and scrapes the pencil tip. While this effort should be applauded, there are two complications here. First is the massive geared lever mechanism. By sticking out so much I see it as something that could get damaged during operation, especially in a school setting. Second is the mounting of the blade. It sits between the two closely spaced cutters and it is supported from a shaft which sits in front of them. There is a good possibility that the blade could get caught between the cutters and chew up the system.
Yerkes’ idea was simplified by Edwin J. Markvart of the US who was granted US patent 2,571,738 on October 16th, 1951. Markvart changed the sharpness adjustment mechanism from a geared lever to a rotatable knob which moves a similar auxiliary blade back and forth. The knob isn’t what we know of on the Ranger 55. This knob allows for an infinitely adjustable blade between two extremes. Markvart filed a variation on the patent which replaces the auxiliary blade with a more simple stop pin. It’s operation is similar to what we see in Baines’ patent. That patent is US 2,572,875. Personally, I don’t see the novelty here. Using a stop pin is what I would call prior art. Maybe the patent examiner thought otherwise during the review process. Whatever the case, there is still something in between the primary cutters that I can see getting jammed. Markvart even accounts for this by saying that the auxiliary blade is of a softer steel than the primary cutters. Being softer would mean that the auxiliary blade would be self-sacrificial in the case of a jam and the primary cutters should escape unscathed.
And here is where the C. Howard Hunt Pen Company of Camden, New Jersey pulled an Apple. On January 7th, 1958, the company was granted US patent 2,818,834 which describes “an improvement in a pencil sharpener and, more particularly, relates to the provision of a pencil sharpener having a novel stop.” The patent lists two inventors, Horace Keech and Donald Lehr. Keech and Lehr first took the stop mechanism from Baines and Markvart’s second patent. Secondly, they combined that with with the crank mounted adjustment idea of Markvart’s first and second patents along with the preset adjustment positions of Yerkes. Thirdly, they added a simple three position spring loaded cam mechanism which adjusts the position of the stop. This cam has three positions: B(lunt), M(edium), and F(ine). Yearkes’ 10 positions looks impressive but how useful are they? Having the three positions answers the question of what would 90% of the users want 90% of the time. Good enough! Think about this way. How many software programs have you tried only to be frustrated with because they were too complicated for what you wanted to accomplish?
The simplicity of the sharpness selection coupled with the mechanical reliability of a single set of cutters doing all the work in a sturdy housing was the first half of the formula of success. The second half comes from the quality of the tip. Let the pencils speak for themselves.
For the above photograph I sharpened three General’s Semi-Hex HB pencils. The difference between the point shapes and sharpness are obvious to see. Would anyone argue that they need something blunter or something in between the steps we see above? If you need something blunter than B(lunt) then get a piece of scratch paper and doodle a bit. If you need something in between the steps then start with closest setting and doodle down that tip. Or, use a prism pencil sharpener. I think for the most part these three settings and the resulting tips provide plenty of versatility. At the B(lunt) setting, the Ranger 55 does not allow the pencil to feed far enough to get the pin point tip that we see on the bottom pencil which was set to F(ine).
Keech and Lehr probably had no idea what their idea would have spawned. Did they ever think their sharpener would be sought after as a classic collectible on eBay? Would they have predicted how many thousands, or maybe even millions, of school children would sharpen their pencils using their designs? The Keech and Lehr patent was filed on December 17th, 1954 and the first commercial use of the “Ranger 55” name was January 25th, 1955 (hence the “55”). That makes this sharpener design 60+ years old.
Once the patent is filed, the invention is protected. The inventors can release the product while the patent is being reviewed (known as “patent pending”). At worst the patent is rejected and the application becomes public domain along with the design (which is what happens when the patent expires). Otherwise, once granted, the invention is protected for a period of time, which I thought was 17 years from the date of issue depending on the type of patent. So, from 1958 to 1975 nobody else can copy the design verbatim. After that the patent enters the public domain and anyone and everyone is free to make their own Ranger 55 under a different trademark name. The rationale here is that the state of the art should have advanced beyond Keech and Lehr’s design and it’s just common knowledge by now. The Boston Ranger 55 sold by X-Acto today is basically a public domain design unless they introduced something new. It’s interesting to note that the general design of the Ranger 55 was dreamed up seven years before the patent was even filed. Design patent 152,554 shows an interesting Ranger 55-ish looking sharpener with a hole selection ring embedded inside the frame.
And so the designs of Baines, Yerkes, and Markvart fade to the dusty corners of inventions past. Their designs as-is never made a splash like the Ranger 55 and their names run the risk of being quickly forgotten. Hopefully this blog entry will revive their names, if even for a few minutes, so that they and their contributions are not totally forgotten.