Saturday 8 March 2008 saw the second Birmingham meeting of the Writing Equipment Society, which is the UK group for anyone interested in all aspects of writing equipment, especially fountain pens. I attended both as a new WES member and to report on the occasion for Pentrace.
Held in the unique Pen Room museum at the Argent Centre in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter (see http://www.penroom.co.uk), the meeting had two main aims; firstly to present a series of lectures by members and guests, and secondly to celebrate a very special occasion, the formal dedication and opening of The Philip Poole Room, named in commemoration of one of the best-known founders of the Writing Equipment Society who also helped inspire the setting up of the Pen Room.
Members of WES and volunteer staff of the Pen Room arrived from 10.30 am and at 11.00 am were warmly welcomed by Brian Jones, Secretary of the Birmingham Pen Trade Heritage Association, and WES Meeting Secretary Dr. Charles Steiner. Various WES Council members then gave notice of forthcoming events etc to the members.
MORNING LECTURE: THE STORY OF YARD-O-LED
The first lecture of the day was the unique story of The Yard-O-Led Pencil Co. Ltd, the famous English mechanical pencil and fountain pen manufacturer which still makes top-quality writing instruments at their factory in Spencer Street, Birmingham. Remarkably, this story was told by Colin Keats, grandson of the company’s founder Ludwig Frederick Brenner.
In the early 1900s Mr. Brenner learned his skills in the jewelry trade in Pforzheim (in the state of Baden-Württemberg, southwest Germany at the gate to the Black Forest) a town world-famous for its jewelry and watch-making industry.
Before the First World War, Brenner settled in England, where from his premises in City Road, London he introduced a broad range of elegant jewelry in rolled gold and silver. He went on to establish strong relationships with many craftsmen and merchants of fine jewelry, becoming highly respected in the trade. Sadly when war came, Mr. Brenner was interned and lost his business, but after the cessation of hostilities, he developed a new business and resumed his respected place in the trade, branching out in 1931 when he founded the Brenner Pocock Pen. Co. in London.
In 1822, the first-ever propelling pencil, the Mordan Everpoint, was invented and patented by Sampson Mordan. Mordan was not directly associated with Brenner, but in 1934, Frank Tufnell, Junior (whose father had been a long-time associate and employee of Mordan) met Mr. Brenner, a meeting that was to be of great importance to the history of writing instruments in later years.
In 1934, Ludwig Frederick Brenner founded The Yard-O-Led Pencil Co. after patenting a mechanical pencil design that enabled each pencil to hold twelve 3” leads (or one yard, hence “Yard-O-Led”). However in practice, the leads used were only 2 ¾” long, which meant the capacity was just short of a yard. The pencils at this time were mostly made using a silver jacket over a brass and steel mechanism. A variety was made, including shorter models (“Yard-O-Letters”) with ring tops for the ladies and the same size with clips for gentlemen’s vest pockets. The short model pencils held 2 1/8” leads. The leads were 3/64” thick. Yard-O-Led pencils became well-known and were even sold in the United States.
The Second World War brought about many changes. In 1941, at the height of the London Blitz, both the Mordan factory and the premises of Yard-O-Led were totally destroyed by German bombs, together with their books and records. In fact, many documents were lost when the safe at Yard-O-Led was looted, a practice that was not uncommon during the Blitz. Following this disaster, Ludwig Frederick Brenner and Frank Tufnell, Junior met again and decided to rebuild the Yard-O-Led Company.
After the war, the business was re-started and a new factory was built in Augusta Street, in what is now part of Birmingham’s “Jewellery Quarter”. The Sampson Mordan Company patterns were sold, and the name was acquired by quality pencil manufacturer Edward Baker of Birmingham. Tufnell purchased a majority shareholding in Yard-O-Led, also buying the Edward Baker Co., which Yard-O-Led took over in 1955. He was also responsible for trade sales.
Post-war business was good. Pencils were now made slightly longer in solid silver and using 3” leads, adding up to a genuine yard. Yard-O-Led went on to offer a wide range of pencils and pens using materials from plastic to silver or gold plate, rolled silver, solid silver, rolled gold, and even platinum (only a few items made in the latter). In the 1950s the advent of the ballpoint pen or “biro” had a big impact on the trade, even though the early refills were poor, and Yard-O-Led also produced such pens. The rarest Yard-O-Led ballpoint pen is however one made of pewter, which apparently was not put into general production, though Mr. Keats was able to show one borrowed from a collector.
When the Edward Baker Co. moved to a larger factory at Soho Hill, Birmingham, the Yard-O-Led factory moved into the former Baker premises. The company’s founder, Ludwig Frederick Brenner (affectionately known as “LFB”) was still active in the company until 1955, but in 1961 Frank Tuffnell, Junior became Managing Director of Yard-O-Led, and in 1964 Mr. Brenner died, at the age of 88, leaving a remarkable legacy. The London offices moved from Great Cumberland Street to Drummond Street in 1965, and then in 1972 to East Barnet.
Tim Tufnell, a trained manufacturing jeweler and son of Frank Tuffnell, Junior, joined Yard-O-Led in the 1970s, and eventually became Managing Director. Today, Yard-O-Led is owned by Filofax (itself now part of the Letts Filofax Group). The majority of the company’s pens and pencils are sold in Great Britain, but also as far afield as the USA, Japan, Russia, Europe, China, and India. The present factory is located in Spencer Street, just a few hundred yards from the old Augusta Street works. As with many fountain pen companies today, high-quality gold nibs are sourced from one of the big manufacturers in Germany. However the majority of pen and pencil production is handled ably by just six highly-skilled craftsmen, with anything from 2 – 49 years of experience each, who works in pen and pencil production at Yard-O-Led, and you can be sure that any quality writing instrument made by the company is produced by time-honored methods, including hand-chasing and using engine-turning machines around a century old.
After being congratulated on his lecture and asked numerous questions by the audience, Mr. Keats was thanked once again by Dr. Steiner before the assembly broke up for lunch. During lunch, break time was available for trading but since most people had gone out for lunch only a few deals were made.
OPENING OF THE PHILIP POOLE ROOM
Reconvening at 2.15 pm, members and guests were called together at the entrance to the main meeting and learning center room, which on this occasion was to be officially dedicated as “The Philip Poole Room”. The late Mr. Poole at one time ran “His Nibs”, a fascinating shop in Drury Lane, London, and he was one of the main inspirers of both the Writing Equipment Society and the Pen Room Museum, and so it had been decided jointly that this was an ideal opportunity to honor a man who had done so much for both organizations.
The Writing Equipment Society grew from a group of enthusiasts who had two things in common – they were interested in all the paraphernalia associated with the act of writing and they all patronized “His Nibs”. Philip had written informal newsletters to his customers and friends, pulling together a group which met in London in September 1980, realizing that they had the makings of a really worthwhile new society. So it was that, on 30 November 1980, an inaugural meeting was held in the Bonnington Hotel, London, and the Writing Equipment Society was born.
It is perhaps less well-known that Philip Poole was also one of the main inspirations behind the formation and setting up of the Pen Room Museum, which is the home of the Birmingham Pen Trade Heritage Association. The Association was first formed in September 1996 as an informal meeting of people interested in the Birmingham pen trade. It was registered as a charity in 1997. Membership was drawn from former employees of the trade, collectors, and people interested in history. The interest has broadened over the years to include writing implements and accessories and forms of writing including Braille and moon, calligraphy, and shorthand. The membership has increased to over 80 and now includes calligraphers, cartoonists, and local people. The Pen Room was opened in April 2001, and a learning center and further exhibition were established in what is now The Philip Poole Room in June 2002.
With both WES members and Pen Room volunteers gathered, then, Brian Jones explained the purpose of the dedication and invited Mr. Poole’s son, Philip Poole, Junior, to say a few words and to formally open the room under its new name by unveiling a new sign on the door.
Mr. Poole then went on to unveil a photographic portrait of his father in the exhibition area of the room.
Finally, Mr. Michael Woods, Chairman of WES, formally introduced a new display cabinet and a further display dedicated to Philip Poole, speaking about Philip Poole and WES as he did so.
THE AFTERNOON LECTURES
The final half of the day commenced immediately after the opening of the Philip Poole Room. The first lecture was one to warm a fountain pen fanatic’s heart:
UNUSUAL FILLING SYSTEMS
The second speaker of the day was Jeremy Collingridge, who over the years has developed a thriving fountain pen sales and repair business. He is also the WES Librarian/Archivist and one of the organizers of both of last year’s WES London Writing Equipment Show and this year’s new Midland Pen Show in Lichfield (20-22 June 2008, see http://www.midlandpenshow.co.uk). His lecture was on “Unusual Ink Filling Systems in Fountain Pens”. After explaining that historically there were literally hundreds of variations on filling systems, many no longer in use today, he went on to describe and explain, with photographs and illustrations, a few of the more interesting and even “classic” ways to get ink into a fountain pen and (sometimes!) keep it there.
First up was the “Stephens Button Filler”. In this design, once the blind cap was unscrewed, this became the button for pumping ink into the pen. Its advantage was that it was not possible to lose the blind cap as a result. Next, he described the Conklin Screwed Plunger Filler and “Word Gauge” system, which enables an approximate count of words left to write based on a measured indication of ink remaining. Thirdly, Mr. Collingridge spoke about the “Waterman 88 Jifmatic”, which worked by simply lifting a flap and crushing the ink sac by hand. The Japanese “Pilot Switch Filler” seemed a neat solution; remove the barrel and flip a switch at the end of the inner metal tube, dip the pen and flip the switch back to fill, then replace the barrel. A somewhat more obscure variant from a mechanical point of view is the unusual lever fixing in the “Moore Lever Filler”. In this, a small pin engaged in a tangential hole machined in the barrel. This made it essential to maintain the associated spring when overhauling such a pen.
Mr. Collingridge showed a number of fascinating pictures of prototypes held in the Parker Archive during his talk. One Parker experimental design, for example, was made to demonstrate a nib similar to that on a Parker 65 but took a Parker 51 cap. Also shown was a Parker experimental bulb filler, apparently based on a Parker 51. There was also Parker Experimental Vacumatics, one of which showed a minor variation in design (a rounded hole in the filler) which would have reduced mechanical stress in the aluminum Speedline filler by a factor of five compared with the lockdown design which went into production. There were also the Parker Capillary Trials, which went on from the 1940s and in an extraordinary campaign by Ken Parker and his team produced concept designs for such fillers which would eventually evolve into the Parker 61 capillary filler and the (shown) Parker 71 of 1961.
One particularly attractive little pen discussed was the “Wahl Eversharp Midget Bulb Filler”, a tiny pen that incorporated a bulb filler in its simplest form, simply a crushable sac. Another, the “Blackbird Top Fill” was a more engineered version of the Wahl filler, a bulb filler incorporating a breathing tube. Slightly more familiar was the “Swan Visofill”, which was similar to the Blackbird but with a violated barrel to see the ink content. One simple yet very clever design was the “Ink Maker Pen” – a modern version of the Trench Pen. It contained a replaceable “ink battery”, and the idea was to dip the barrel of the pen into a glass of water and the ink would dissolve, filling the pen. Also looked at was the “Sheaffer Pen for Men”, perhaps the ultimate, if over-complicated, the evolution of the Sheaffer Snorkel system whereby a snorkel extends from the pen to fill then a piston knob is turned to draw in the ink without having to clean the nib and section. Unfortunately, all the mechanics within the “PFM” mean there was relatively little ink capacity, and its complexity meant potentially increased need for services.
Other examples shown included the Conklin Crescent Fill “Starry”, the “Cameron Safety Filler” where squeezing the end of the barrel pressed the filler bar, the “Grieshaber Matchstick Filler” where a matchstick was poked into a hole in the side of the barrel to compress the sac, and modern representatives of the oft-decried cartridge filler, notably the Montblanc Boheme, and the Waterman Glass Cartridge, whose patent went back to 1935 but was still in use in the 1950s.
The lecture was warmly received, many questions asked, and some of the systems illustrated were viewed with amusement as you might expect!
Dr. Charles Steiner has had a lifetime of experience in metallurgy, and after thanking Jeremy Collingridge, went on to speak on his own behalf in the afternoon’s second and final lecture, about “The use of unusual materials in the manufacture of writing instruments”.
He gave particular examples of a number of fountain pens and in some cases nibs, made from materials as diverse as platinum, palladium, titanium, and carbon fiber.
The first titanium fountain pen was the Parker T1 of 1970. It was followed in 1996 by the Omas T2, of which there were two versions, one of which was larger with a titanium nib and silver trim. The standard T2, a slightly smaller pen, had a gold nib and gold plated trim. Other titanium pens produced have included special pens made by Grayson Tighe in numbered editions based on the Pelikan M800 and M1000; these pens were anodized giving different shades or colors of metal. Some current Tighe pens use carbon fiber overlaid on titanium. Motor racing company McLaren has also produced pens made from spare titanium tube stock and carbon fiber. Chris Thompson has produced some fine “vintage” Parker Duofold replicas from machined titanium bar stock and using modern Duofold gold nibs. The Visconti Skeleton Demonstrator is a startling limited edition pen that uses a titanium skeleton overlain over a transparent body, offering a pen that changes color according to the ink with which it is filled. Finally, less exotic but more affordable is the Lamy Persona, a fine modern pen that in one form has a titanium finish that could be either vacuum deposited or electroplated.
Why use titanium? Although expensive, it is less so than in the past and is widely distributed in mineral form (i.e. Rutile or Ilmenite), although it can be difficult to isolate. It is very hard and resistant to discoloration or corrosion, including that caused by bodily fluids or inks. It is tough and shock-resistant. It can be worked into shape hot or cold. On the other hand, it can be difficult to handle and work, being tougher than steel tools – one of the main reasons for the commercial failure of the Parker T1 was the fact that it cost so much to manufacture. The titanium simply wore out the conventional metalworking tools of the day.
Some pens have also been made out of Platinum, although because this often dulls many have been overplayed. Platinum is four times as expensive as palladium, is 2 or 3 times denser than steel, and its discovery dates back to pre-Columbian times. Its use was in decline until World War II, after which there was an upsurge in use. It is very unusual for solid platinum pens to be made; normally manufacture involves a thin vacuum deposited or electroplated coating of platinum over the main body (brass?) and the platinum may then be coated with palladium or rhodium. Companies making pens that use platinum have included Montblanc, Cartier, and Yard-O-Led (who made just 3 ballpoints from this!). Montblanc also uses platinum in the nibs for its 149 fountain pens.
Finally, carbon fiber, a synthetic material that is stronger than steel, is also used in the bodies of a number of pens, usually in combination with other materials. Dunhill produced the first carbon fiber pen in 1996 – the “AD2000”. Carbon fiber has also been used in the Delta Extrema, and in selected pens by Montblanc, McLaren, Monteverde, and the Caran D’Ache Octagonal.
After applause and a series of interesting technical questions, Dr. Steiner was thanked for his most informative lecture and the meeting concluded around 3.30 pm, the members and guests departing to wend their weary way home. Your Ace Reporter likewise headed off hotfoot to Birmingham New Street Railway Station for the train back to Bloxwich and a well-earned cup of coffee!
What next for WES? A meeting of the Writing Equipment Society will be held on Saturday 19 April 2008, 3 pm, at the Clifton Arms Hotel, Lytham St. Annes, England. For more information see the WES website: http://www.wesonline.org.uk and don’t forget – new members are always welcome!
Stuart Williams, 13 March 2008
© 2008 Stuart Williams All rights reserved by the author
Read Stuart William’s previous article
The Birmingham Pen Room
Pen Room Museum at the Argent Centre in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter
Writing Equipment Society