An Autopoint/Dur-O-Lite Mystery
¡ SOLVED !
A Working Paper
Robert L. Bolin
The mystery was why virtually identical mechanical
pencils were made by rival pencil companies. The answer is simple. In the
1930s, the Dur-O-Lite Pencil company developed a distinctive mechanical
pencil which proved useful for certain data processing operations. They
sold large numbers to institutional customers. In the mid1950s, the Autopoint
Company developed a virtually identical copy and went after Dur-O-Lite's
NOTE: In earlier versions of this paper, I said that
Dur-O-Lite made pencils for Autopoint. I was wrong. Earlier versions
are not reliable.
--Bob Bolin, June 1999.
This is a working paper based partly on conjecture. I would
appreciate any comments, corrections, or additional information.
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The Autopoint Company manufactured mechanical pencils in Chicago for many
years. I have been interested in Autopoint pencils since I was in high
school. In the 1970s, I found a strange "Autopoint" brand pencil. The pencil
was marked "Bell System Property" and looked like this:
That pencil had a peculiar spiral mechanism unlike the classic Autopoint
mechanism. The mechanism used a plunger shaped like a shepherd's staff
which moves down a long spiral. The mechanism is shown below in the instructions
for "How to Reload Your Spiral Pencil" from the 1985 Dur-O-Lite catalog.
Recently, I used the Internet auction site eBay to buy some old mechanical
pencils. I found a number of pencils with that spiral mechanism. Some were
made by Autopoint, but some were made by Dur-O-Lite, a rival pencil company
in the Chicago area. The mechanism of those pencils appeared to be identical.
In fact the tips were interchangeable. I asked myself:
Why are Autopoint spiral pencils and Dur-O-Lite spiral
pencils are mechanically identical?
Reaching the Wrong Conclusion
Because they appeared to be identical, I guessed that all the spiral pencils
were made by a single manufacturer. When I discovered that John
Lynn, founder of Dur-O-Lite, had patented the spiral pencil mechanism
in the 1930s, I concluded that:
Dur-O-Lite made spiral pencils for itself
and for Autopoint.
Since I have learned that I was dead wrong.
never made anything for Autopoint.
The Real Story
I now believe that this is the true history of the spiral pencil.
Autopoint continued to produce spiral pencils until the 1970s when it was
sold to Gillette and much of its product line was dropped.
In the 1930s, John Lynn developed the spiral pencil.
Two patents were issued to Lynn in the late 1930s for the basic spiral
design. They are 2,087,519, July 20, 1937 and 2,145,450, January 31, 1939.
At about the same time IBM introduced "mark
sense" technology with which a pencil can be used, with special equipment,
to record data on punched cards.
The use of mark sense technology facilitated collection of data using
Spiral pencils proved well suited for mark
sense applications, and Dur-O-Lite was able to sell large numbers of
its spiral pencil to Western Electric and other users of mark sense technology.
The Bell System companies used mark sense technology to record long
distance calls. Western Electric was the central purchasing agent for the
In the mid-1950s when the patent expired, Autopoint reverse
engineered the spiral pencil and began producing it.
Autopoint expressly went after the Western Electric contract.
Autopoint took great care to make its pencils identical to the Dur-O-Lite
Autopoint was able to outbid Dur-O-Lite and took over many of the contracts
with Western Electric, the US Government, and others.
Dur-O-Lite continued to sell spiral pencils into the 1990s when it ceased
production of pencils.
Mark Sense Technology.
From the 1940s into the 1970s, "mark sense" technology was used in punched-card
data processing operations. In 1937, IBM introduced the Type 805 International
Test Scoring Machine. Soon IBM had adapted that technology to develop the
"mark sense reproducer." That device made it possible to collect punched
card data using a pencil. Data, such as a telephone number, was recorded
on a special "mark sense" card in the form of pencil marks. When the mark
sense cards were fed through a properly configured "reproducing punch,"
the marks on each card were translated into the appropriate punches on
that cards. The punched cards could then be used for ordinary data processing
Later IBM made mark sense punching an optional feature of its IBM 514
Reproducing Punch and for its IBM 519 Document-Originating Machine. Addition
of a "Mark Sensing Device" made those punches able to act as a mark sense
One big user of mark sense technology was AT&T which recorded long
distance calls this way. AT&T purchased numerous pencils which used
0.046 inch (1.1mm) diameter "mark sense" lead. The mark sense lead was
a special lead with a high graphite content which would make a solid mark.
IBM called the process of punching marked cards with a reproducing punch
"mark sensing." IBM's name for special mark sense lead and pencils was
In the original spiral pencil, the tip assembly is about 5 inches long
so that the pencil can hold a piece of lead about 4 inches long. Even with
heavy use, that long lead would last a long time. Obviously, that sort
of pencil was well suited for use at a work site, like a switchboard, where
replacement leads could be stored.
Reverse Engineering. Reverse
engineering is the process of drawing up specifications for a physical
item using the item itself and related documentation. Military forces occasionally
reverse engineer enemy weapons and equipment. Usually, when a weapon is
reverse engineered, it is then "re-engineered" to make it better before
it is put into production. When Autopoint reengineered the spiral pencil,
they made an effort to make it mechanically identically and superficially
identical to the Dur-O-Lite pencil.
The copy was good enough to fool an expert. Keith
Orman, who made Dur-O-Lite spiral pencils with his own hands, dismantled
and broke apart an "Autopoint" brand spiral pencil. He said that the tip
of the pencil was clearly made by Dur-O-Lite, but that the rest of the
pencil was not.
John Lynn. It is ironic that Autopoint
expropriated Lynn's spiral pencil design and used it to compete against
Dur-O-Lite. In the early 1920s, Lynn was a founder of the Autopoint Company.
Around 1925, he sold out and founded the Dur-O-Lite company.
A number of people helped my solve this mystery.
Keith Orman, a former officer of the Dur-O-lite company, described company
operations, answered my questions, and examined sample spiral pencils I
Kane Senda, Controller of the Autopoint Company in the 1950s and 60s, described
company operations and answered my questions.
Mr. Joseph Senesac, Sales Promotion Manager of Autopoint on the 1960s,
loaned me Autopoint catalogs and other sales material.
Sol Shulman, President of Autopoint in the 1950s and 60s, described company
operations and answered many questions. My
on Interviews with Sol Shulman are available on the Web.
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