Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A late Heath magic pencil


What at first glance appears to be an unprepossessing silver golf pencil, turns out, with a pull on the end, to be a magic pencil -- and one made by the fabled firm of George W. Heath & Co.


It's no accident that its styling recalls the streamlined golf pencils of the 1920s and '30s, for this is a very late magic pencil. The design, with the screw-off lead reservoir shown below, was the subject of US patent 1,514,965 -- the very last of Heath's writing equipment patents. The application was submitted on July 19, 1922 and the patent was issued on November 11, 1924. The "PAT. APP. FOR" imprint locates the pencil between those two dates.

The pencil is also of interest in that it bears both of the standard Heath marks. The famous H in a square is on the extending shaft, while "G. W. H. CO." appears on the barrel. The Heath marks stop appearing on the overlays of name-brand pens well before this pencil was made -- suggesting that the omission of the marks from contract work was customer, not Heath's, choice.



Sunday, September 28, 2014

Chapmans vs Waterman: Miscellaneous

There are a lot of scattered historical tidbits in the Chapmans vs Waterman trial record (background here). Some notable nuggets are listed below:
As of 1915, A. A. Waterman production was around 100,000 pens annually (p. 153) -- less than a tenth of Waterman's volume, per William I. Ferris' testimony (p. 179).

A. A. Waterman's sacs were guaranteed for only two years, replacement cost 25 cents (p. 349).

The Sterling Fountain Pen Company originated in the February 1899 dissolution of A. A. Waterman & Company and its takeover by Rhodes Lockwood, formerly a silent partner and the firm's financial backer (pp. 185-86).

A December 2, 1909 letter from the Modern Pen Company states, "Within the last year Mr. [Arthur A.] Waterman was withdrawn from the Chicago Company and is now with the Held Pen Co. of Salt Lake City, Utah" (p. 592, see also p. 595).

In December 1907, Waterman bought 1512 gold nibs from the Modern Pen Company for $393, including a $15 charge for "Altering tools" -- presumably, the tooling charge for the imprint stamp (pp. 547-48). The transaction was indirect, the nibs being sold by Modern to William L. Chapman and by him to William I. Ferris (pp. 118, 126). According to Chapman, he dealt directly with company president Frank D. Waterman (mistakenly called "Fred") and Ferris, and set up the transaction at their request to conceal that they were buying nibs from a rival (pp. 146-48). Ferris later claimed that the nibs were bought for Aikin Lambert, but court adjourned for the weekend before he could be pressed on this, and when the trial resumed the following Monday, the questioning moved in other directions (p. 191).

According to Walter L. Rieman, in charge of Waterman's repair department, 350-400 packages arrived by mail per day, some with more than one pen. This impressive repair volume did not include repairs received over the counter, as there was a separate repair department attached to the retail department (p. 406).

Chapmans vs Waterman: Chasing machines

One of the ways in which the Chapmans' counsel attempted to discredit Waterman (background to the case here) was by claiming that Waterman wasn't really a manufacturer, but instead merely assembled parts made by others. Even in 1915, many manufacturers relied upon subcontractors, so I'm not sure this was a well-chosen tactic. In any event, it led to many exchanges about the sourcing of holders (that is, hard rubber pen parts) and the application of chasing. Waterman's counsel emphasized how chasing required time, skill, and experience, and thus how, along with hand-fitting, nib-setting, and clip attachment, it constituted real manufacturing and not mere assembly of premade parts. The Chapmans' counsel in turn tried to trivialize the chasing operation, as in this cross-examination of Waterman's William I. Ferris (pp. 186-87):
Q. The chasing is a simple matter, isn't it? A. It is part of the manufacturing.
Q. You simply put the pen in a machine and run it through? A. You may say the same thing of the holder, you put it in and turn it around.
Q. It takes skill to do that? A. The other requires skill.
Q. Doesn't any dollar a week girl do that? A. She does not.
Q. How much do you pay her for running the chasing machine? A. My recollection is the girl gets $12 a week.
Q. Is it run by unskilled labor? A. Experienced labor; it takes a lot of experience to operate them properly.
Q. Do they not put half a dozen holders into a machine and simply run it through a little machine and it comes out chased; is that right? A. Yes; but the machine has to be properly adjusted and operated or they don't come out chased.
In later exchanges, Ferris clarified that "boys" ran the chasing machines, with "one girl in charge under a superintendent, and young men operate the machines", each "boy" running two to four machines at once, depending on the class of work. (pp. 197-98). He also stated that it typically took four to five minutes to chase a holder, depending on its size (p. 275).

Ferris's was not the only testimony about Waterman's chasing methods. A Brooklyn stationer, Van Brunt Tandy, owner of the stationery firm formerly known as John M. Bulwinkle -- reputedly Waterman's first commercial account -- was queried about his visits to the Waterman factory (pp. 238-39):
Q. Did you see anybody chasing penholders at the L. E. Waterman & Company shop? A. Yes.
Q. How is it done? A. It is done with six holders put in at a time, six caps in one section and six holders in. another section, in which a tool goes around like that and cuts them; possibly the steel escapes the part where there is any plain spaces.
Q. The result is that with all this chasing, a plain holder has this wavy appearance? A. Yes.
Q. Does one boy manipulate a number of machines? A. Manipulates two machines, one for the holders and one for the caps and one for the body. . .
Q. What did you see? A. I saw him put six caps in one machine to the left and six holders in another machine to the right, and those two machines were both working at the same time.
Q. With respect to the rapidity of the number that are produced in that way? A. I would say it would take about ten minutes to do six complete.
Q. A little over a minute apiece? A. They had six at a time.
Q. Do you mean to say it takes ten minutes to go through that machine? A. I certainly do. '
Q. Isn’t it done in ten seconds? A. No, sir.
I've been working on a full article on the history of hard rubber chasing and chasing machines, and sources are remarkably few. The material above is a useful addition to what we know of how these machines were actually used in a production environment. For further description and illustrations of the machines used by Waterman in this era, see the article on Waterman pen manufacture in Machinery, vol. 18 (Dec 1911), p. 253.

Chapmans vs Waterman: Notable pens

In the Chapmans vs Waterman case (background here), a number of pens were introduced as evidence. Most were Watermans, many noteworthy. The list of exhibits (pp. v-xiv) records nine with overlays, five in sterling silver, three in 14K gold, and one simply "gold" -- presumably gold filled. The testimony transcript indicates this group included a 424 sterling silver Pineapple (p. 180) and a 512 solid gold sleeve-filler (p. 265), as well as a selection of pens chosen to illustrate the range of Waterman designs then in production, including the coin-filler (pp. 265-66).

Surely the most extraordinary pen mentioned, though, was a Waterman 20 self-filler. Edward Rohlfing, assistant manager in Waterman's retail department at 173 Broadway, recounted on the stand how he sold this pen to a customer who had brought in a #8-size A. A. Waterman/Modern pen -- clearly, a fan of big pens! -- for a nib swap (p. 356). There can be no doubt about the pen's identity, as the model number was mentioned multiple times, and Rohlfing describes the pen as "unusually large". And when asked, "Does that fact that this No. 20 self filler that you sold to him, impress this incident on your mind?", Rohlfing responded, "It does, because it is a very unusual size, and we very seldom sell one of the large 20 self fillers" (p. 357). From the context, this sale likely took place in 1912 or 1913, and the pen was a giant sleeve-filler -- a pen now known in only one surviving example, with this trial transcript the only other record of the model's existence known to date.

Some idea of the relative rarity of such a pen at the time may be gained by considering that Rohlfing had been serving some 200 customers daily for the previous four years (pp. 353, 358). It would take something special indeed to stand out from such a crowd.

Chapmans vs Waterman: Safety pen patents

One of the disputes brought out in the Chapmans vs Waterman case (background here) was over claimed infringements by Waterman of safety pen patents held by A. A. Waterman/Modern Pen. The main discussion appears in a letter from Waterman dated May 21, 1908, addressed to Alexander S. Bacon, Modern Pen's lawyer, and entered into evidence as Plaintiff's Exhibit 25 (pp. 496ff). The letter recounts Waterman's negotiations to purchase Modern Pen, including its patents (though in the trial, the focus seems to have been put on Waterman's attempts from 1907-08 to buy the A. A. Waterman trade name; p. 122-24). According to the Waterman letter, the sale of Modern was a done deal, awaiting only "formal corporate authorization". Counting on this pending acquisition of the Modern patents, Waterman "began the manufacture of a safety fountain pen which is the one of which we assume you complain." When this manufacture began is a bit unclear. Bacon had sent letters on April 29 and May 19, 1908 protesting the infringement, but how long did it take for Modern to learn of the new safeties and to respond? The Waterman letter states that the expected sale of Modern was still pending when Bacon's letter of April 29 was received, but the deal afterwards fell through. The letter then avows (p. 497):
As soon as we learned that these negotiations of sale had been broken off, we forthwith entirely discontinued the manufacture and sale of the safety fountain pen as then constructed and of which we assume you complain. Of the safety fountain pens of which we assume you complain only a few have been sold, probably less than a dozen.
Considering the letter's purpose, this improbably low number should be taken with a grain of salt. Admitting no fault, the letter goes on in good legal style to name and deny the validity of the patents allegedly infringed (523234 Peck and O'Meara, July 17, 1894; 551895 Horton and Peck, December 25, 1895; 700909 Frazer, May 27, 1902), and to state that Waterman's abandonment of this original safety design was "merely to avoid litigation and the trouble and expense incident thereto." The letter then concludes:
We are now using for our safety fountain pen a construction or structure which our predecessors in business used more than twenty years ago, and which has been commonly and continuously used for pencils and fountain pens since 1852, and of which we assume you claim no monopoly, If you desire, we would be pleased to submit to you a sample of the safety fountain pen as we are now making and selling the same. We wish to repeat that we have entirely discontinued making and selling fountain pens of the structure of which we assume you complain, and that we do this merely to avoid litigation and not because we recognize the validity of the patents you claim to be infringed, or that the pen as made by us did actually infringe any of these patents.
The generally accepted chronology for Waterman safeties posits that the earliest examples were those in which the nib turned as it extended and retracted, the tracks cut into the interior of the barrel being helical, rather than straight. Later safeties used a straight track and a helically-slotted driving tube (for illustrations, see our Waterman Safeties Pen Profile). The arrangement of the earlier safeties would have been to get around the Peck and O'Meara patent. The Waterman letter adds another twist to the story, so to speak. The helical-track safeties were not Waterman's first, after all. For while the standard straight-track pens did follow the helical-track pens, it seems they also -- albeit briefly -- preceded them.

If that "construction or structure which our predecessors in business used more than twenty years ago, and which has been commonly and continuously used for pencils and fountain pens since 1852" is to be identified with the straight-track safeties, how is that particular passage to be read? The reference to "our predecessors in business" is particularly opaque, implying as it does that Waterman itself used this mechanism in its earlier days -- and inasmuch as Waterman evidently didn't, must be interpreted as a deliberately misleading way of saying that other, earlier, and unrelated companies did. The reference to 1852 appears to invoke the mechanism described in John Mabie's US patent 11762, application date unknown, but issued in 1854. Others had long used a basic retracting or propelling mechanism consisting of a carrier riding in a longitudinally-slotted tube, riding in turn inside a helically-slotted tube, the carrier having a pin engaging both slots, by which the carrier was driven when one tube was twisted and the other held fixed. Mabie's patent added two improvements: a pin that went all the way through, engaging the outer tube's track on both sides; and helical slots in both tubes, cut in opposite directions. The Waterman letter undoubtedly refers to the first improvement, applied to the older form of retracting mechanism, rather than to the second, which is unknown in Waterman safeties of any era. Waterman's claim that this mechanism had been in use for decades for fountain pens appears to be a complete fabrication.

The limitations of advertisements as evidence are once again highlighted here. Previously, our earliest notice of Waterman safety production came in advertisements and trade journal mentions at the end of July 1908. We now know that Waterman began making safeties no later than April, and had switched to a non-infringing design in May.

ADDENDUM: In case you were wondering how A. A. Waterman/Modern Pen ended up with all the key retracting-nib safety pen patents, see Geyer's Stationer, vol. 31, Apr 4, 1901, p. 35, which reports on Frazer & Geyer's purchase of the bankrupt Horton Pen Company's plant, machinery, and patents.

Chapmans vs Waterman: Ferris' testimony

Perhaps the most revelatory testimony in the Chapmans vs Waterman case (background here) is that of William I. Ferris (pp. 176ff, 267ff). Ferris had been with Waterman from very early on -- 1885, by his testimony, when the company consisted of but L. E. Waterman himself and his secretary (p. 177-78). Nearly all of Waterman's key patents after 1884 were Ferris's. Nor was he a closeted inventor, as he was also in charge of Waterman's manufacturing -- though he wore other hats within the organization as well.

Ferris on early Waterman advertising:
"In the first few years the advertising was limited to a few magazines. As the business went on and grew the advertising increased from magazines into newspapers and car cards [interruption] and other display matter, and this increased gradually through the 90's . . ." (pp. 178-79)

Ferris on Waterman sales volume:
"The first three or four years [from c. 1885, presumably] we sold in the neighborhood of 10,000 pens a year. From 1890 to 1900, it increased every year. About that time we sold in the neighborhood of 150,000 to 200,000 pens a year, but from early, 1901 to 1905, or for the last ten years, the sales have been upward of a million pens a year." (p. 179)

Ferris on the first Waterman overlay ("mounted") pens:
"in the early 90's, 1891, 1892 or 1893." (p. 180)

Ferris on the first Waterman self-filler (syringe-filler):
"The first self filler we made in about 1891 or 1892." (p. 184)
"We made a piston operating pen, which we made about 1891 or 1892." (p. 188)
[This is the first and only contemporary reference to this extraordinarily rare pen that has been found to date. Only two surviving examples are known, both with cone-caps, suggesting manufacture no earlier than 1894.]

Ferris on the Waterman pump-filler:
"We make what we call the pump pen; that was made about 1895, and it was put out more generally about 1900. We experimented and sold a few of them." (p. 184)
"We made a . . . pump filling pen, which we made in 1898, and 1900 they came out more extensively." (p. 188)
[Followup query: "You soon abandoned those, didn't you?" Ferris: "We still make them; some people won't have anything else." Goading queries follow: "The pump filling pen keeps pumping after you stop pumping and pumps the ink all over your fingers, doesn't it?" and "You have to have a college education to use one?"]
Upon further questioning about the pump-filler being abandoned or currently sold in only small numbers, Ferris stated that pump-filler sales were still running at 15,000-20,000 per year. (p. 267)
[Full introduction of the pump-filler only several years after an initial trial release is consistent with the evidence of advertising, patents, and surviving specimens. Note too that Robert C. Liddell, manager of Waterman's retail department, testified that the pump-filler had been made for about ten or twelve years. (p. 340). One wonders if Ferris was exaggerating pump-filler sales, but even so, 15-20,000 was a pretty small share of a total annual pen production of over a million.]

Ferris on the Waterman coin-filler:
"We make what we call the sleeve pen which has a rubber sack in, and a coin slot pen which -- [interrupted] And a pen with a lever attachment." (p. 184)
Q. What is this coin slot pen? A. That is a pen with a slot in the side of the barrel that you use a coin or knife blade or edge that will go in and compress the sack and fill it.
Q. How long have you been manufacturing them? A. About two to three years.
Q. Since the beginning of this action in 1910? A. Yes. (p. 189)
Cross-examination:
Coin-filler included in a Waterman salesman's sample case assortment introduced as evidence. (pp. 265-66)
Q. How long have you sold those with the coin apparatus for filling? A. About four years.
Q. Since about the beginning of this suit? A. About that time. (p. 267)
[Waterman coin-fillers have been dated to around 1913, since their only known appearance in advertising was in that year. Their rarity has been taken to indicate a short period of production, but this testimony suggests that they were produced from c. 1910-15 at least, though probably not much later than that.]

Ferris on the Waterman lever-filler:
Mentioned last in a chronological account of Waterman's self-fillers (see under coin-filler above, p. 184)
Lever-fillers introduced "last year, about a year ago" (p. 188), "last year." (p. 267)
Liddell, when asked how long the lever-filler had been sold, responded "The last month or so." (p. 340)
[These dates are not inconsistent, given that both Ferris and Liddell testified on February 16, 1915, and the likelihood that Ferris may well have overseen test releases some time prior to what Liddell would have seen overseeing the retail department. In any event, the trial record shows that Waterman produced its first lever-fillers some months prior to their first appearance in advertisements in mid-March 1915.]


Ferris on the relative popularity of various Waterman pens:
Estimate that eyedroppers ("regulars") were about 50% by number of pens sold. (p. 187)
Reiterated on cross-examination. (p. 266)
Same figure provided by Liddell. (p. 339)
Q. In the beginning, at the beginning of this action in 1910, what proportion of your pens were the old fashioned kind that you filled with a dropper? A. Probably fifty or fifty-five per cent. (p. 267)
Estimate that safeties were around 15-20% of pens sold. (p. 267)

Ferris on Waterman and Aikin Lambert:
In response to questioning about the consolidation of Aikin Lambert and Waterman nib production, date of consolidation given as "1910, about." (p. 196)
Same date given on cross-examination, noting Waterman was buying small quantities of nibs from Aikin Lambert in the years prior. (pp. 274-75)
Q. When did the Waterman people first get control of Aiken-Lambert Company? [objection, overruled]
A. About 1907. (pp. 196-97)
[The timing of the takeover was discussed here; Ferris's testimony indicates that it took place quickly, despite the public denials of the parties involved at the time.]

Ferris on Waterman manufacturing:
As of 1915, the Days' hard rubber plant in Seymour, Connecticut was still independent, though nearly all of its output was for Waterman, and Waterman managers had the run of the plant. (p. 185)

Waterman's own nib factory started in 1900. (p. 185)
Previously, all nibs outsourced:  Q: In 1898 . . . you bought your pen points and your holders both, didn't you? A. We did. (p. 186)
Waterman continued to buy nibs from outside suppliers for years after starting own nib production. (p. 197)
Ferris evasive on buying nibs from other makers: "We have bought a few in the earlier years, but in the last eight or ten years we have made them all that we have used under the name Waterman." (pp. 185-86)
Q. When did you last buy any pen points from outsiders? A. Any pens with the Waterman name on, I should say it is seven or eight years. (p. 187)
[Ferris and others also testified about the process of hard rubber chasing, which I have put into another post. It is interesting that Ferris stated that nearly all Waterman pens were chased (p. 275), as that is borne out by the relative rarity of smooth hard rubber models from that era.]

Ferris on Waterman sub-brands:
Q. What other pens do you manufacture? A. We manufacture the pen under the name of Remex, Edson, Pen An Ink (sic). (p. 187) Q. You have a self filler Remex, don't you? A. We did. (p. 188)
[The Remex self-filler was a sleeve-filler with a rotating rather than a sliding sleeve, introduced around 1905; Ferris's answer suggests that it was no longer in production by 1915.]



There are a few inconsistencies in Ferris's testimony, reminding us that no source can be used uncritically. Ferris was repeatedly asked how many different sizes of pens Waterman made, and repeatedly stated that there were seven, from size 2 to size 8 (p. 183, pp. 268) -- forgetting entirely to mention the biggest of all, the 10-size pens (a #10 nib is shown on p. 54 of Waterman's 1908 catalog, and the sale of a 10-size self-filler is recounted here). In the same exchange, Ferris also responded that Waterman sold pens with plain holders, chased holders, and mottled holders, forgetting to mention red (Cardinal) holders, which were standard catalogued items by this time. Asked when safety pen manufacture began, Ferris responded "about ten years" (p. 188), even though other evidence places it firmly in 1908, not 1905. Perhaps by this time Ferris was a "big picture" manager; the Waterman 20 (and at the other extreme, the "World's Smallest" No. 000) he might not have considered a regular production item -- present rarity likely reflecting past rarity, given that the survival rate of standout items is typically much greater than for the run of the mill. 

Chapmans vs Waterman: A pen history trove

Trial transcripts offer some of the richest repositories of behind-the-scenes historical information about the pen industry. The dispute itself is often of secondary interest, in comparison to what gets brought out in the testimony. This is very much the case with a volume I recently discovered on Google Books, which records the appeal by Isaac E. and William L. Chapman against the L. E. Waterman Company, heard in 1915 in the New York State Supreme Court's Appellate Division. This was the penultimate action in the long-running legal battle between Waterman and A. A. Waterman that was finally settled once and for all in 1917 -- a battle already treated at great length by George Kovalenko, to whom I will leave the task of analyzing the new material and incorporating it into the Waterman vs Waterman story.

What I intend to do instead, is to highlight some of the tangential information brought out in the testimony. This will take the form of multiple posts, so as to maintain a degree of organization by topic. Much of the new information has to do with Waterman, but covering everything from specific designs and models to manufacturing techniques to operational procedures in the repair departments -- plus the odd intriguing anecdote. The post topics are: Ferris' testimony; Safety pen patents; Notable pens; Chasing machines; and Miscellaneous.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Patience rewarded

Project pens sometimes take a while to complete, but the silver Sheaffer shown above took longer than most. I found it, capless, in a Florida resale shop in the late 1980s; the cap only turned up in the last year or so, and it had been so long that I had forgotten exactly where I'd put away the barrel. When I finally dug it out earlier this week, the cap proved to be a perfect fit.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Ammonia, stress corrosion cracking, and 14K gold nibs

Several years ago I posed the question of whether pen cleaning solutions containing ammonia could pose a risk to gold nibs via the process known as stress corrosion cracking (SCC). The original discussion at FPN can be reviewed here (the responses on Lion & Pen contained less of substance, and in any event are now lost). The most useful scientific paper cited in that discussion was David A. Scott, "The Deterioration of Gold Alloys and Some Aspects of Their Conservation", Studies in Conservation, vol. 28, no. 4 (Nov 1983), pp. 194-203. According to Scott, gold alloys in the 9-14K range are most vulnerable to stress corrosion cracking, whereas gold of 18K purity and greater is largely invulnerable. A number of reagents that could provoke stress corrosion cracking were mentioned, including aqueous solutions of ammonia. Unfortunately, details were not provided concerning the concentration of these solutions, or the length of exposure required before embrittlement took place.

That particular online discussion ended without any firm conclusions being drawn. My concerns remained, however -- enough that I drastically cut back on my own use of ammonia solutions on gold nibs. If ammonia could embrittle gold nibs, it would be a slow, cumulative process -- very possibly taking years or even decades before becoming apparent -- so I did not find any reassurance in arguments that consisted of little more than, "I've not had any problems, so it must be OK." What worried me particularly was the large number of  vintage gold nibs with cracks in locations that just didn't make sense. Cracks where a nib is subjected to repeated bending are readily explained by metal fatigue. But what about cracks in the heel of a nib, where it is firmly sandwiched between the feed and section? Fatigue would not seem to be a concern there, so why are such cracks so common? Conventional wisdom is that the gold was made too hard, but if so, why are these nibs so often cracked only where they are wedged into the section? The answer may be that while the heel is the part of a nib least subject to the cyclic loading that causes fatigue, it is the part of a nib under the greatest constant stress. And it is that very stress that makes materials vulnerable to stress corrosion cracking.

A recent reexamination of the materials science literature available online has helped fill out this picture. The studies cited by Scott, for example, are referenced in more detail in Jennifer M. M. Dugmore and Charles D. DesForges, "Stress Corrosion in Gold Alloys", Gold Bulletin, vol. 12, no. 4 (Dec 1979), p. 141:
Much of the published work on the stress corrosion cracking [of] gold alloys is that of Graf and his co-workers and results were obtained using binary gold alloys. For example, Graf (15) found that the susceptibility of such alloys actually increases as the gold contents increase from 5 to between 15 or 20 atomic per cent, in which range maximum susceptibility is observed. The precise gold content at which the maximum susceptibility occurred depended on both the corrosive media and the stress applied to the alloy. When gold-copper alloys were exposed to a mixture of ammonia, water and oxygen the maximum susceptibility occurred at a gold content of about 15 atomic per cent . . . Graf also observed that as the gold content was increased above that at which the susceptibility to stress corrosion cracking was a maximum, the susceptibility dropped rapidly and the alloy appeared to become virtually immune. In other work (3), this author reported that ultimately the susceptibility dropped to a constant low value at higher gold contents, an effect he attributed to strong general surface attack. He also observed that when the stress was increased, not only did the susceptibility to stress corrosion cracking increase but its maximum was shifted towards higher gold contents.
It is previously explained that "9 carat alloys contain about 18 atomic per cent, and 14 carat alloys
often less than 30 atomic per cent gold. In each caratage, the percentages vary according to the atomic
weights and the proportions of the non-gold components present in the alloys." While this might at first glance suggest that the gold content of 14K alloys puts them comfortably above the level of maximum susceptibility to ammonia-induced stress corrosion cracking, the last sentence of the longer passage quoted above indicates that under higher stress there might be no safety margin after all.

This is at least partially confirmed by another article, W. S. Rapson, "Tarnish Resistance, Corrosion and Stress Corrosion Cracking of Gold Alloys", Gold Bulletin, vol. 29, no.2 (Jun 1996), pp 61-69, which makes specific mention of fountain pen nibs, and of ink (p. 64):
SCC may be induced not only by exposure to acids during pickling but also a result of contact with reagents such as ink, traces of hydrochloric acid in the atmosphere, perspiration, etc. It has frequently been initiated at points of stress created in annealed low carat alloys by subsequent stamping. Articles such as fountain pen nibs, rings, chains, etc, provide well-known examples.
A further reference appears on p. 66:
In early production of 14 carat fountain pen nibs, for example, Loebich (27) has stated that when ternary Au-Ag-Cu alloys were used, it was found desirable to age the fabricated nibs. In the aged condition they did not undergo stress corrosion cracking in use; whereas if heated to the point where they became homogeneous, cracking by the action of the ink became likely. When certain 14 carat quaternary Au-Ag-Cu-Zn alloys are used, however, such ageing is apparently unnecessary. This could be due to the known limiting effect of the zinc on phase separation in these alloys. The susceptibility of alloys of this type to stress corrosion is apparently considerably influenced both by their zinc contents and by heat treatment. Analogous anomalies occur in the case of the white Au-Cu-Ni-Zn alloys and these have been discussed by Graf.
I have not yet been able to consult the articles by Loebich (who worked for Degussa: Otto Loebich, "Metallkundliche Probleme bei der gewerblichen Goldverarbeitung", Zeitschrift für Metallkunde 44 (1953) p. 288-92) or Graf (L. Graf and J. Budke, "Zum Problem der Spannungskorrosion homogener Mischkristalle III: Abhangigkeit der Spannungskorrosionsempfindlichkeit von Kupfer-Gold und Silber-Gold Mischkristallen von Goldgehalt und Zusammenhang mit dem "Mischkristall-Effect"", Zeitschrift für Metallkunde 46 (1955) pp. 378-385). Nonetheless, the fact that 14K nibs did have problems with stress corrosion cracking is highly significant. While that exposure was to ink -- that is, to acids and salts -- rather than to ammonia, we now have incontrovertible evidence that under the right conditions, even very weak solutions of known problem reagents can eventually leave alloy gold fatally embrittled.

What can we conclude from this? It seems clear that the observed cracking of nibs at the heel is indeed due to stress corrosion cracking -- and on balance, it is likely that this is primarily due to long-term exposure to ink, rather than to much shorter exposures to ammonia. We cannot assume that ammonia exposure is no more damaging than  ink exposure, however, given that typical ammonia cleaning solutions are far more reactive than ordinary modern inks. And given the cumulative nature of stress corrosion, minimizing ammonia exposure is only prudent.

One precaution to be considered is to remove nibs from sections before cleaning. Stress corrosion does not take place where there is no stress, and by all indications, nibs are most stressed by being wedged into their sections -- though internal stresses cannot be entirely ignored. If nibs are removed and cleaned separately, one also has the option of using other solvents not implicated in stress corrosion at all, such as denatured alcohol.

A further question is how ammonia solutions react with gold alloys in an ultrasonic cleaner. The scrubbing action of an ultrasonic will typically remove more encrusted ink in a minute than in hours of soaking, but ultrasonics are also known to be able to erode objects by driving the cleaning solution into microscopically small surface cracks and pores. Though it would seem that ultrasonic cleaning has the potential to dramatically accelerate the process of stress corrosion, I have not been able to find any relevant studies (including with other metals and other reagents).

Two final notes: While we might worry about ammonia, chlorides are a proven danger. I have personally seen a 14K gold pen overlay spontaneously crack to pieces after a few minutes of exposure to undiluted bleach. Even in very dilute form, bleach (and even heavily chlorinated water) will rapidly embrittle gold jewelry many times thicker than a pen nib. Jewelers' websites routinely caution against wearing gold rings of 14K purity or less when using cleansers, swimming in chlorinated pools, and even handling some foodstuffs (vinegar and salt, for example). And we can also learn from the jewelers regarding another aspect of stress corrosion cracking prevention, which is heat treatment. A stress relief anneal, typically 30 minutes at 250°C, is recommended after any jewelry repair. This is consistent with Loebich, cited above -- though I wonder how many of those who currently engage in nib repair have any knowledge of this.

ADDENDUM: Worth noting is the near-total absence of heel cracks on gold dip pen nibs, which were made in much the same way as fountain pen nibs, and which in use would have been subject to very similar fatigue cycling -- but very different clamping stress, and no ink exposure.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Conway Stewart bankruptcy and liquidation

Last week it was announced that Conway Stewart was under administration, with the possibility of an imminent sale mentioned. Now it seems that if there is to be any sale, it will be of the name alone, for the physical assets of the company are up for auction, starting the day after tomorrow. In addition to the expected machinery, furniture, and the like, the catalog lists a good number of pens -- including quite a few vintage pieces, undoubtedly acquired as reference specimens.