Peregrine Williamson: Inventor, Businessman, and Pioneer Pen Maker

In the last entry on pen history, I wrote briefly about The Craft Era. There were two main makers from that era: Wise of London, and Peregrine Williamson in Baltimore. I wanted to share a bit more about Williamson who was not only an early pioneer and innovator, he was most likely the first financially successful pen manufacturer anywhere.

Peregrine Williamson was born around 1770. In 1800 he was a working jeweler in Baltimore when, as the story goes, he made a steel pen for himself as he was having trouble cutting a quill to his own satisfaction.

At first, this tube-shaped steel pen suffered from the same stiffness that plagued other attempts at making a steel pen. Peregrine worked at fixing this and finally came upon a method of adding two additional slits, one on each side of the main slit. This increases the flexibility of the tines by, essentially, making the tines narrower, as well as moving the center of flex forward towards the end of the slit. With less steel to flex, it became easier to bend the tines.

Here’s a more modern version of the same side slit. There’s another one on the other side.

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In 1809 he submitted a patent for this discovery. It was issued on 22 November 1810. Unfortunately, this patent disappeared with so many others in the 1835 fire. It is one of the missing “X” patents and would fall somewhere between X1392 and X1404. If anyone has seen this I, and the patent office, would love to see it as well.

By 1808 he was advertising his pens as the Williamson Patent Elastic Three Slit Pen. His early advertisements include excerpts from a letter from then President Thomas Jefferson, to whom Williamson had sent some sample pens. They also included an endorsement from Francis Foster, a writing master at St. Mary’s Catholic Seminary and College in Baltimore.

1809 Williamson ad with Jefferson

During the height of his production of these pens, their popularity ensured that he was busy enough to hire a journeyman assistant, and the business made a “clear $600 a month profit” according to an 1835 article in the Journal of Commerce out of New York City. (as quoted in full in the 22 May 1835 issue of The Evening Post (New York))

After several years of successful business, we had a bit of trouble with our friends across the Atlantic. In 1812 Peregrine Williamson enlisted in the 51st Regiment of the Maryland Militia for the defense of Baltimore. He was present during the battle of North Point where the British landing to take Baltimore was eventually repelled, and then was also present for the next two days at Fort McHenry during the British bombardment, which inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the national anthem.

It’s not clear how long he made pens, but he may well have continued through the few years of the war. The latest ad I have found for his pens is from late 1813.

Peregrine Williamson 1813 ad

But at some point he did stop making pens. According to that same Journal of Commerce article, he kept making pens “until the demand, limited as it then was, becoming for the moment supplied, and his attention being attracted to some other object, the manufacture of pens was abandoned.”

At the time, the only real competition he had was from Wise of London. While Wise was much more ambitious in his marketing and reach, he seems to have not been as financially successful. According to an 1838 article in The Saturday Magazine,

The first mention that we find of steel pens for writing, is in 1803, when Mr. Wise constructed barrel-pens of steel, mounted in a bone case for convenience of carrying in the pocket. These pens were very dear, and produced to their inventor but a scanty income. For many years, however, Wise’s pens were the only steel pens that could be had, and by means of great activity in “pushing a sale” of them, they could be had at almost every stationer’s shop in the kingdom.

While Williamson seems to have left the pen trade sometime in the 18-teens, Wise continued to sell his barrel pens into the 1820’s. An ad from a New York stationer in 1827:

1827 Wise steel pens ad

Something else happened in the 1820’s, and that was the first blossoming of the British pen trade. One of the major innovations frequently attributed to the British at this time,  was the three-slit pen for increased flexibility. Gillott’s 1831 patent lays claim to the invention of making the tines as straight, parallel strips of metal rather than sloping from the shoulder to the tip. This is accomplished via the two slits on the side, making them parallel to the main slit in the middle. In other words, he’s found a way of patenting the result of two slits parallel to the main slit, not the slits themselves. This wording may well have been one of the impetuses for the wide variety of side slits you begin to see, from “T” slits, “L” slits all the way up to outright cut-outs where the metal is taken away entirely at the sides.

Here’s a more modern pen (c. 1920’s) with the same kind of side slit as you found in 1830. As you can see, by separating it from the shoulder, it creates a straight tine with parallel sides. The slit is shown in the yellow oval, the tine is delineated by the rectangle.

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This patent has led many to repeat this as fact, that the three tine pen was first made by Gillott after his 1831 patent. One example is found in the Wikipedia article on Gillott which states,

One great difficulty to be overcome was [the early steel pen’s] extreme hardness and stiffness; this was effected by making slits at the side in addition to the central one, which had previously been solely used. A further improvement, that of cross grinding the points, was subsequently adopted. The first gross of pens with three slits was sold for seven pounds.

But how do we account for Williamson’s advertising (and patenting) his “three slit pen” over 20 years before? Could this be a case of independent invention? Well, the Journal of Commerce certainly does not think so.

A sample of [Peregrine Williamson’s three slit] pens was sent out to England, and imitations soon came back, placarded with an Englishman’s name as the inventors, “by His Majesty’s Royal Patent.” The Englishman [Gillott] could not invent so much as a card even, but made almost a facsimile of Mr. Williamson’s. The same cards have been perpetuated to this day, and the business has been pursued by the English manufacturers, until more than a hundred tons of steel are now used annually in the manufacture of more than two hundred millions of pens, and the price is reduced to a few cents. The English manufactures, in the mean time, have realized immense fortunes by the invention, but have added nothing to the principles of Mr. Williamson, nor, after all their change of form, have they contrived anything better than his, or so good.

Well, if that isn’t throwing down the gauntlet at the esteemed Gillot, Perry, et. al. I am not sure what else would suffice for a challenge? He even goes after Gillott for using cards to package pens. It seems that Williamson sold his pens for $1.00 each or $9 for a card of a dozen. And indeed, pens were very often sold on a card containing a dozen pens in the early days of the 20’s and 30’s.

Unless we end up finding one of Mr. Williamson’s pens, or better illustrations of them, or a smoking-gun admission from Gillott’s private papers that he saw a three-slit pen from America before his patent, there’s no way to validate the truth of this provocative declaration. We do know the later part of the statement, decrying any innovation on the part of the British, to be false. They did introduce many improvements in manufacturing techniques which were primarily responsible for bring the price far below Williamson’s $1.00/pen. They also pioneered thinner and better quality steel with better tempering, as well as grinding nibs to increase flexibility. (most likely that last innovation belongs to Mr. Gillott who had begun his apprenticeship as a scissors grinder)

What we do know is that the three-slit pen was not a novel invention of the British. And there seems to be an indication that at least some of these American three-slit pens made their way to England before this invention was claimed on that side of the Atlantic. It is a not-unlikely possibility that this idea was at least started by Peregrine Williamson, even if it was taken further by the early pen makers of Birmingham.

An additional interesting twist to Peregrine Williamson’s career is when he decided to get back into the pen game around 1835. He filed another patent as an improvement over his old patent of 1810. This was issued in 30 March 1835 and is another of the lost “X” patents. It should be somewhere between X8728 and X8736. I’ve also read a reference to yet a third patent from 1838 but have not been able to find any other reference or record of it.

This second patent, according to the Journal of Commerce, covered two innovations:

The first is a sliding clasp, which being moved up or down makes the pen more or less flexible, at the pleasure of the writer. The other is hardening the extreme of the nib [the very end of the tip] in the most extreme degree. By these two improvements which Mr. Williamson has or will secure, by patent, he hopes to clasp again the profits of his invention. We are now writing with one of his three-slit, sliding-clasp, diamond points, and it is certainly a very fine pen.

This idea of a sliding mechanism to adjust the flexibility of the nib also makes it over to England at least by the time of a British patent in 1856, #777, by Alexander Prince: “Improvements in steel pens for the regulating the elasticity thereof.”

The same concept even shows up later in fountain pens in the Eversharp Doric adjustable nib introduced in 1932.

Unfortunately, I’ve not seen any evidence that Mr. Williamson ever made any of these new pens, or started a new company, but the search continues.

Peregrine Williamson died in 1841 at the age of 71 of apoplexy.

For such an important, early figure, very little is actually known about him. He appears in no census data, no directories, no genealogies. Very little is known about his personal life, where he was born or raised, or even how he made his pens. What we do know is that he was a true pioneer and innovator, and he can truly be said to be the first American steel pen manufacturer.

 

**Thanks go out to Mariam, a wonderful Reference Librarian at the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library at the New York Historical Society for her kind help and for finding Peregrine’s War of 1812 service and death notice.

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