Time to get away from the Corinavirus for a little while…
There are two very important anniversaries in March, anniversaries ignored by most people.
It was on March 20, 203 years ago, that Hymen Lipman was born.
The name probably doesn’t ring a bell.
But there is little doubt that, at some point in their lives, everyone will have benefited from at least one of Mr Lipman’s inventions.
Because it was he who gave us the pencil with the built-in eraser.
Indeed, it was 162 years ago on March 30, that Mr Lipman was awarded U.S. patent No. 19783 for his invention which was a “combination of the lead and India rubber or other erasing substance [embedded] in the holder of a drawing-pencil.”
Before it was discovered that rubber could erase pencil markings, people had used bits of bread which they scrunched into a little ball for use as an eraser.
Rubber was a lot more durable and a lot more effective than bread.
Still, I doubt there will be parades or grand dinners to mark his birth or the granting of his patented pencil and rubber combination.
But I remember him every year. And not kindly.
It was in the early sixties that I first came across Mr Lipman’s invention.
I was six or seven years of age. And I was in the kitchen, doing my homework.
I was holding a pencil, one like that described in the patent, as I tried to do my sums. The only problem with my pencil, is that the eraser, the rubber, was long gone. All that was left at the top of the wooden pencil was the little bit of metal which had held the rubber in place when it was new.
I stopped to think about the problem in front of me. As I did, I rested that little bit of metal on my front tooth.
It slipped. And that sharp metal scraped along the roof of my mouth, ripping a piece of skin two or three inches long from my palate.
I cried. Of course I cried.
And I ran to my mother blubbing through bloody mouthfuls in an effort to tell her what had happened.
She could see for herself.
And so this heroic woman, who was probably not much taller than I at the time, picked me up and carried me the half a mile or so, uphill, to our GP, Dr Reggie Spellman.
He brought us in.
He sat me down.
He told me to open my mouth.
He saw the piece of skin hanging down from the roof of my mouth.
He stared at it. He looked at my mother.
His hand emerged from behind his back.
He held a scissors.
He quickly put the scissors into my mouth.
And he cut away the skin that had be hanging down.
“He’ll be grand,” he told my mother.
Grand. It’s a great word, or maybe a grand word for such occasions.
But the thing is, he was right.
We got all that was necessary to prevent infection.
And I was able to walk home with my mother, though I was not yet able to speak which the family probably regarded as the silver lining on my cloud.
It wasn’t long before all was well with the world again.
But I never forgot that damned pencil. And I never forgave Mr Lipman – as soon as I found out that it was he who invented them.
I was determined to find out.
I enjoyed reading. And I loved the old set of Encylopedia Brittanica which we had at home.
And it was there, or in one of the dozens of such books on our shelf, that I discovered Hymen Lipman was a “stationer extraordinaire”.
In addition to his deadly pencil, he was America’s first envelope manufacturer and it was he who came up with the idea for adhesive on the back flap to make sealing the envelope easier. He was also the first to produce and sell blank postcards.
When he invented his pencil and eraser combined he sold the idea to a man called Joseph Reckendorfer for $100,000, a sum equivalent to millions now.
And when Faber started making similar pencils, Mr Reckendorfer took them to court for breach of patent. And lost. The court said that “all Lipman had done was combine an eraser, which was a known technology, with the pencil, which was a known technology.”
They didn’t mention that it had the potential to become a deadly weapon.
I won’t celebrate his birthday, nor the anniversary of his pencil/eraser combination.
But I will remember Mr Lipman.
And I’ll probably mutter a small curse under my breath.
He died in November 1893 and, though many believed him to be Jewish, was described as “self-sacrificing Christian and devoted husband and father.”
He may have been.
But I bet he didn’t let his kids play with those damned pencils.