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Mechanical Pencil Month – Day 20: Mordan’s Bicentennial

The final day of our countdown has arrived which means it is time to go back to where it all began. By that I don’t just mean Hawkins and Mordan’s patent for the first mechanical pencil that is two hundred years old today, but also the pencil that brought this fact to my awareness in the first place.

It began, as usual, with a throwaway ebay purchase: a poorly photographed 19th-century mahogany case of drawing instruments with several pieces missing, exactly the kind of thing that I keep telling myself to stop buying. I would normally have dismissed it as worthless and moved on, but one particular item caught my attention and the only way to find out more about it was to buy the whole set.

Two of the empty spaces in the top tray held early mechanical pencils that were not original to the case.

Early mechanical pencils from 19th century drawing instrument set

One was of a type that I had seen many times before, a bone-handled lead holder with metal grip and manual screw-on collar, fully six inches in length. These unsigned clones of A.W. Faber’s famous “artist’s pencils with moveable leads” were commonplace in late Victorian England and seem to have been particularly popular with architects.

The other pencil, however, was new to me.

Mordan early desk pencil

It was a good couple of inches shorter than the first, with a pair of incised lines towards its tail that hinted at a removable end cap.

The metal point section was also quite different, almost black in colour and more finely detailed, at least so far as it was possible to tell from the fuzzy pictures. The darkness of the metal in particular suggested oxidised silver, which tended to be reserved for higher quality instruments.

When the set arrived, most of my suspicions were confirmed. The first pencil was indeed one of the many ubiquitous Faber clones, quite cheaply fabricated of plated sheet metal and fully manual in operation. The other could not have been more different.

It was intricately made of solid metal, almost as if by a jeweller, and the point section did indeed appear to be sterling silver. At the other end was a screw-fit cap that revealed a small chamber for spare leads.

Moreover, the pencil’s mechanism was not a simple clamp for lead, but an intricate propulsion system with a rotating collar and removable tip.

Unfortunately the pencil appeared to be unsigned, the only distinguishing mark being a letter “M” engraved in the metal close to the writing point.

This I knew from my Wolff & Son’s lead gauge was to indicate that the pencil took medium leads. I was also aware that it was one of the original five grades of lead introduced by Sampson Mordan in the early 19th century – VH, H, M, S, VS – with which letters he marked all of his pencils. However, most of the Mordan pencils I knew of had all-metal bodies with a sliding collar that allowed the point to be retracted for protection when not in use, as seen in this late-1820s advertisement for their patented ever-pointed pencils (not to mention that incredible pillar compass).

1820s Mordan & Co. print advertisement for ever-pointed pencils

Furthermore, the text of the advertisement makes it clear that all of Mordan’s pencils were marked S. Mordan and Co. “on the body of the case“, while mine was unmarked.

Clearly this would need more research, so I decided to put it on the back burner for the time being. That was until I stumbled upon the original patent and its associated drawings quite accidentally while looking for information about Brunel’s tubular compasses. This proved to be a revelation, particularly as the pencil illustrated had no sliding parts, but was a fixed point design with a screw-in point and rotating collar to propel the lead, just like my mystery pencil.

Patent drawings of Hawkins and Mordan's mechanical pencil 20 December 1822

I decided to trawl the web for images of early Mordan pencils, to see if there were any distinguishing features that might help with attribution and dating. Fortunately, most of Mordan’s pencils were made entirely of silver, so the body carried a hallmark (as also mentioned in the advertisement) which allows them to be precisely dated.

Sure enough, the early pencils from the 1820s had certain stylistic features in common, that were absent or visibly different in later examples. These included the number and style of decorative bands to either side of the propulsion ring, the beaded knurling to the ring itself, and the shape and additional details of the screw-in point. From this evidence, I was now convinced that the pencil from my jumbled drawing set was an early Mordan model, likely from within the original patent period. Why it had no hallmarks was easy enough to explain, being a desk model with only its point section of silver, but the question of it being unsigned seemed problematic.

In the meantime, having become quite good at spotting early Mordan patent pencils, I bought one and then another in quick succession, both of which were seemingly lacking the usual identifying features and consequently inexpensive. The first of these was again poorly photographed, but looked similar to my desk pen, albeit without the unscrewing end cap.

On receiving the pencil, however, it was clear that although the mechanism was definitely built to Mordan’s patent, the detailing was less fine, particularly the diagonal knurling which has a distinct coarseness to it.

Again it was unsigned, but this time there was no letter on the point to indicate the lead thickness.

The second new purchase was an altogether different story.

Although it was an all-metal sliding pocket pencil, it was clearly of a similar quality and construction to my desk pencil, marked with a letter “H” for Mordan’s hard leads on its point.

The point also unscrews in just the same way as the desk pencil’s.

At the other end was a finial with a grid pattern for embossing the wax used to seal letters (traces of red wax can still be seen in the crevices, so the pencil was clearly used as intended).

Finally, the body was marked simply “S. MORDAN’S” – not a signature I recognised from the usual list – lacking the “& Co.”, “Patentees”, “Makers” or variations on these suffixes, nor did it have any sign of a hallmark.

Undeterred, I determined to hunt down the odd signature and eventually found it in the 2012 publication The KB Collection of Pencils, a huge archive of silver mechanical pencils with a heavy emphasis on S. Mordan & Co. As well as being a treasure trove of information, on page eighteen I found what I was looking for. The mark “S. MORDAN’S” was used for one year only – 1824 – and, significantly, without a hallmark (a non-sliding example with the same mark can be seen here). This was during the transitional period between 1823 when Mordan entered his own “SM” mark at Goldsmith’s hall after buying out his co-patentee Hawkins, and April 1824 when he entered a new mark “SM-GR” as a result of his partnership with Gabriel Riddle. For this short period of a few months, Mordan was without a hallmark for his silver pencils.

Further context can be gleaned from the earliest advertisements placed by Mordan in British newspapers and journals. An advertisement from the Somerset House Gazette of January 3, 1824 – within the “S. MORDAN’S” hallmark-free interregnum – is worthy of transcription in full:

By His Majesty’s Royal Letters Patent.
MORDAN and Co.’s EVER POINTED PENCILS are upon a principle entirely new.–The black lead is not enclosed in wood as usual heretofore, but in a small conical silver tube, to which there is attached a mechanical contrivance for propelling the lead as it is used; and its diameter is so nicely proportioned, as to render it quite unnecessary to be ever cut or pointed either for outline or shading. The Cases adapted for the Drawing Table are of Ebony, Ivory, &c.; and for the Pocket, there are Silver or Gold Sliding Cases, varying in taste and elegance. It is particularly worthy of observation that the Black Lead is all seen before used, is of the very finest quality, and prepared by an entirely new process, of five different degrees of hardness, properly lettered for artists and draftsmen; and at the same time is perfectly suitable for all the purposes of business. May be had at most of the respectable Silversmiths, Stationers, Artists, Repositories, &c. and will be found on trial one of the most important inventions hitherto presented to public notice for facilitating the culture and practice of the Fine Arts.
25, Paternoster-row.

This establishes several facts about the early product range, including the five lead grades and the different models for the drawing table (ebony, ivory) and pocket (silver and gold). The address 25 Paternoster-row was given elsewhere as Gabriel Riddle’s, so it would seem to confirm that the new partnership was active at this time. More interesting still is an advertisement from the following year, found in The London Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres of April 23, 1825, which contains broadly the same information, but ends with an additional note:

N.B. To prevent Imposition, S. Mordan and Co.’s Patent is stamped on each of their Patent Pencils.

This explains not only the more rigorous marking after 1824, but also the addition of the various suffixes around the theme of “Makers & Patentees”. In much the same way as Riefler had found with his round system compasses, the success of Mordan’s invention had quickly led to imitators. As the Arcana of Science put it in 1837:

There is no patent which has been more infringed on than that of Mordan’s, for ever-pointed pencils. Birmingham is the source of this infringement, where they are sold as low as 3/4d. each, formed of composition. A thousand persons are now engaged in the Manufacture of these pencils, and pencil-cases.
These facts were stated by Dr. Faraday, at the Royal Institution, April 22nd.

Yes, that’s the same Faraday who had been busy inventing the electric motor at the same time Hawkins and Mordan were inventing their pencil, and clearly a fan of the cutting-edge writing implement. The evidence that Birmingham was churning out cheap imitations of Mordan’s patent pencil in composition metal (a copper alloy containing additional tin, lead and zinc that was easier to work) sheds new light on my coarser unsigned desk pencil. Could this have been one of the counterfeit products that drove Mordan to sign his goods in triplicate? Meanwhile, the two silver pencils now seem to represent a more innocent age, when Mordan was simply a pencil maker with a new idea.

If I have learned anything from the last twenty days of Mechanical Pencil Month (other than let’s stick to Mechanical Pencil Day next time), it is that every pencil has a story to tell, however unpromising it might seem at first. With that, I wish you a Happy Bicentennial celebration and all the best for the holiday season!

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