An eye for an i #461 Children

Williamson wields a pen

While Gillott’s work features in  The Pen Museum at   Birmingham, not enough is known about Williamson.

While Gillott’s work features in The Pen Museum at Birmingham, not enough is known about Williamson.

There was no need to put pen to paper for creating the content that you are now reading. The author typed it out directly on a system and after several processes, all of which were done using computers, it was printed out in the newspaper.

In a world that is increasingly filled with gadgets and even infants and toddlers being exposed to it, a future where pens and pencils might even be sidelined isn’t unthinkable. That said, there is no denying that pens have already played a pivotal role in the fields of learning and documenting.

The history of pens is dotted with contributions from several people across the globe. Among them is American Peregrine Williamson, an early pioneer in the pen-making business and certainly among the first to be financially successful as a pen manufacturer.

Largely unknown

For someone who has enjoyed the kind of success that Williamson has, there is very little documentation that tells us more about him. Almost nothing is known about his personal life, and details such as when he was born, where he was raised, or even how exactly he made his pens are rather obscure.

What we do know is that he was born in the second half of the 18th Century and that he was working as a jeweller in Baltimore at the turn of the century. Legend has it that it was during this time, when he had trouble cutting a quill to his own satisfaction, that he made a steel pen for himself.

Like other steel pens of the time, Williamson’s first attempts resulted in a tube-shaped steel pen that were too stiff. This led Williamson to one of the most important early innovations to steel pens, the side slits.

Increased flexibility

Using a method of adding two additional slits, one on each side of the main slit, Williamson was able to fix the stiffness problem. As the tines (the two sides of the nib divided by the slit) were now narrower, it increased the flexibility of the tines, making writing that much easier.

The best surviving records of Williamson’s pen making are his advertisements in the newspapers and correspondence with various people, including Thomas Jefferson, one of the country’s founding fathers and the third President of the U.S. from 1801-1809.

Jefferson’s praise

The letters between Williamson and Jefferson reveal that the former sent his pens to the President while he was in office. Williamson’s early advertisements from 1808 included excerpts from the President, which mentioned that the pens were “certainly superior to any metallic pen he has ever seen” and that he “now indeed use no other kind”.

Williamson received a patent for his metallic writing pen on November 22, 1809. This patent, 1,168X, however, is among the missing X patents, as a lot of U.S. patents were destroyed in a fire in the mid 1830s. All that survives of the patent is its mention in lists published in books.

Williamson’s pens were certainly popular and he was able to establish a financially viable manufacturing business. Even though he was probably at it for only a few years, the demand was sufficient enough for him to hire a journeyman assistant to help him in the production and declare a handsome profit as well.

Gillott or Williamson?

It is worth mentioning that Birmingham-based English pen manufacturer Joseph Gillott is often credited with inventing side slits to increase flexibility of the tines based on his 1831 patent. While Gillott could have arrived at this innovation of his own accord, he might have well been imitating Williamson’s pens as well.

In those times, there was a practice of putting up pens by the dozen on a card. It is believed that Williamson sent a card of his pens to England and those could well have made their way to Gillott. Some even go as far as to suggest that Gillott even used the idea of packaging pens using cards based on this.

11 patents overall

As for Williamson, he did try to get back to his pens and even obtained a patent in 1835 – 8,735X for metallic pens. With a sliding clasp to make the pen more or less flexible and hardening the tip of the nib, Williamson sought to bring two innovations. There is, however, no evidence to suggest that Williamson ever made these pens.

Williamson died in the 1840s, a little over 70 years old. Along with his pen-related patents, Williamson had a total of 11 patents to his name, including those for roasting coffee and improving bedsteads. Unfortunately, only one of these – issued in 1840 – remains, while every other patent he obtained from 1809-1835 was lost to the fire.


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Printable version | May 21, 2022 3:50:35 am | https://www.thehindu.com/children/williamson-wields-a-pen/article62992441.ece