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Mechanical Pencil Month – Day 18: Rotring multi-pencils

One type of sliding pencil that did not get a mention in yesterday’s entry was the multi-colour everpointed type, made by Sampson Mordan among others. These particular models always appear slightly ungainly to me, as whichever pencil is selected it will always be off-centre from the holder. However, for many users the convenience of several colours in one must have outweighed any inconvenience in handling. This remained the case until the introduction of the first true multi-pencils in the early twentieth century.

Naturally, in the beginning these were all pencils, as the first successful ballpoint pen had yet to be devised by László Bíró (patented in 1938). To tell their story, we turn once again to Rotring, or Riepe-Werk as the firm was known at the time, after its founder Helmuth Riepe.

Riepe-Werk (later Rotring) 1928 advertisement for the first Tintenkuli pen

Emboldened by the runaway success of his Tintenkuli stylographic pen which had debuted in 1928, by the mid-1930s Riepe began to diversify the firm’s product lines, first with unrelated products that carried the same “kuli” branding such as a razor (Rasierkuli) and cigarette case (Takuli), but later with a multi-pencil called the Farbstift-Kuli.

Rotring Farbstift-kuli with 1930s advertising pamphlet

As with their previous products, Rotring did not make the Farbstift-Kuli in house, but had them built to their specifications by a specialist mechanical pencil manufacturer, Adolf Waldmann of Pforzheim. Waldmann had first patented his four colour pencil (Wechselschreibstift mit einem Drehknopf zum Verschieben der Minentraeger) in 1935 (British patent here), for which he was awarded a silver medal at the Paris World Exhibition in 1937.

Farbstift-kuli end cap with engraved name

Rotring’s Farbstift-Kuli is exactly the same design as Waldmann’s own pencils, the only differentiating features being the engraved words FARBSTIFT-KULI on the end cap, a black barrel to match their black Tintenkuli pens and the red ring above the chrome tip, which Riepe first introduced as a brand identity around 1935.

Riepe-Werk (later Rotring) 1935 advertisement for the earliest Tintenkuli with a red ring

For their own pens, Waldmann offered other finishes including gold, silver and different engine-turned patterns.

The original Farbstift-Kuli is extremely uncommon due to its short production run from no earlier than 1937 to around the outbreak of war in 1939, after which it is unlikely that manufacture of what was essentially a luxury item would have continued for long. In any case, Waldmann’s factory was destroyed on 23 February 1945, production only resuming after its reconstruction in the early 1950s.

This second period of Waldmann’s production was if anything more intensive than before, with further patents taken out for two, three and four-colour multi-pens from 1952. This led to a special collection being produced for Rotring (still called Riepe-Werk at the time) in 1959, and the Hamburg firm soon became Waldmann’s main customer, taking up to 75% of their output.

Rotring’s 4Farb-Kuli was the spiritual successor of the Farbstift-Kuli, as well as being in many ways essentially the same pencil.

Rotring 4farb-kuli in original box

The writing point section and barrel are almost indistinguishable from its predecessor’s, only the rotating end cap transformed with a streamlined 1950s-style makeover.

Rotring multi-pencils: Farbstift-kuli, 4farb-kuli comparison

Likewise, the mechanism worked in the same way, with a twist action to alternately change colours and retract the point. The clip bears the “4Farb-Kuli” logo, while the end cap to the spare lead receptacle is marked “DBPa” (patent pending).

Rotring 4farb-kuli end cap DBPa inscription

Waldmann was not the only firm making multipens at this time, as Rotring also retailed four-colour pens and pencils manufactured to the pattern of Gebr. Fend GmbH, another Pforzheim company known for its slider mechanism.

Rotring 4farb-tikk-kuli with Fend-style selector slides

Fend’s design was first patented in 1928, seven years earlier than Waldmann’s twist-selector, although the better known version with its separate sliding catches was only patented in 1935, the same year as their competitor’s. Indeed, by the mid-1960s Waldmann had patented their own version of Fend’s slider design.

After Adolf Waldmann’s death in 1964, his firm continued to work ever more closely with Rotring until a formal acquisition of Waldmann KG took place in 1971. Now part of Rotring, the multi-pens and pencils had become a signature product, a major refresh taking place by 1990 with the introduction of the new style trio-pen.

Rotring trio-pen

In addition to its modern appearance, the internals were upgraded to a gravity-selection mechanism, which can be quite baffling to the uninitiated.

Rotring trio-pen internals

If the pen is held horizontally with the required symbol pointing upwards, a click of the button will advance the chosen drawing point. It can then be retracted by means of a small black button on the clip.

Rotring trio-pen three view

The less commonly seen multi-pencil, which contained three different lead thicknesses of 0.3, 0.5 and 0.7 mm, even seemed to pay tribute to the original Farbstift-Kuli with its combination of black barrel and silver nosecone.

Trio-pen and multi-pencil from Rotring's 1990 catalogue

Until very recently, Rotring continued to sell multi-pens in the form of the Rotring 600 3-in-1, Tikky 3-in-1 and new design Trio multipen, but with last year’s decimation of their range it is unclear if any of these are still in production (they do not appear on Rotring’s website). After eight decades of almost continuous production, it would be a shame if these ingenious writing instruments were to fall by the wayside, leaving only the Bic 4 Colours – at least until the end of the year, when Bic’s UK website closes.

BIC UK website closing down (retrieved 18 December 2022)

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