Yore Write!

It’s Not Just What You Know, It’s Also Who You Know

While many of us may believe that we are masters of our own destiny, and that it is only our own personality, expertise, work ethic, etc., that determines the extent of our success in our chosen career path, most of us that are past the mid-point of our lives can look back and readily identify at least one or two individuals that were significant influences in our careers, good or bad.

One of the earliest Mordan pencils in my collection – 1825

Sampson Mordan (1790-1843) was no different in that regard. He was a bit of a nasty individual when it came to how he ran his business. He regularly initiated legal proceedings against anyone that he felt had crossed him in some way, and at the same time he had no qualms about stealing ideas and technology from others that he associated with.

In spite of this, throughout his business career Mordan was able to connect with, and occasionally partner with, some of the most imaginative and brilliant minds of the period. Mordan’s ability to leverage the value of those connections is clearly apparent in the enduring success of his company.

Mordan is recognized as the co-inventor of the mechanical pencil, having filed the first patent (#4742) in England, in 1822, jointly with John Isaac Hawkins. The Mordan brand quickly became synonymous with quality and his business flourished. Following his death in 1843, the business was carried on by two of his sons, Sampson Jr. and Augustus. Now, almost two hundred years later, their strict adherence to quality craftsmanship lives on through the current owners of the Mordan intellectual property, the Yard-O-Led company.

Hand crafted Yard-O-Led fountain pen – 2015

Here are just a few of Mordan’s associates that I’ve stumbled across during my collecting of those beautiful victorian Mordan pens & pencils…

Oldest Mordan combo in my collection – 1823
“Bramah” clip on 1823 combo

Joseph Bramah (1748-1814) – As a young man, Sampson Mordan worked as an apprentice with Joseph Bramah, whose inventions included the famous Bramah Lock. As an apprentice, Mordan would have learned the skills involved in lock making and eventually the Mordan company also became well known as expert lock-makers. Bramah’s locks were extremely difficult to pick or tamper with, and in 1790 Bramah offered 200 guineas to anyone that could pick his “challenge lock”. It was 67 years later, in 1851, that someone finally succeeded after spending 51 hours over a period of 16 days to accomplish it. Joseph Bramah is probably even better known as the inventor of the hydraulic press, but between 1778 and 1812 he actually filed 18 different patents which not only included the Bramah Lock and the hydraulic press, but other well-known inventions including the flush toilet, rotary engines, the first pumper fire truck, automated printing of banknotes with sequential numbering, and in 1809 a mechanical device to manufacture quill nibs for pens. The production of pen nibs was a very lucrative business at the time and is another idea that Mordan took advantage of in future years, in addition to the easily recognizable “Bramah Clip”, which was a unique way to secure the pen nib. Bramah was also well known for his attention to production quality and it may have been this trait as much as any other that he instilled in his favourite apprentice, young Mordan.

Following Bramah’s death, Mordan began his own company and sometime before 1822 he teamed up with John Isaac Hawkins, the next major figure in Mordan’s career.

1822 Hawkins/Mordan Patent #4742

John Isaac Hawkins (1772-1855) – Beyond the mechanical pencil, Hawkins had a wide variety of interests and his inventions touched many different fields of study – a duplicating machine, experiments in water filtration and sugar refining, use of a cast iron frame in upright pianos (he sold one of his fortepianos to Thomas Jefferson in 1802), trifocal lenses, and the iridium tipped gold pen. The 1885 Gentleman’s Magazine describes Hawkins as follows : “He was a wonderfully prolific inventor, a martyr to inventive genius; ever at work on new inventions, some of which founded the fortunes of others, but none of them yielded much to himself. His share was comparative poverty, amply compensated by that intense enjoyment of life only known to the enthusiast, and which mere money cannot purchase.” Hawkins first left the UK for America in 1790, returning to the UK in 1803, and then returning once again to America in 1848, where he died in 1855. Both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were listed among his American friends.

In 1823, in what was apparently to become a common practice for Hawkins, he sold his share of the pencil patent to Mordan, who in turn found a new partner that could provide a much needed cash infusion, the successful London stationer Gabriel Riddle.

G. Riddle Pencil – 1836/1837

Gabriel Riddle – While Riddle may not have played a major creative role in Mordan’s life, he certainly was still a key figure. As a successful stationer, he had both the wealth and the distribution channels that Mordan needed access to after buying out Hawkins’ rights to the pencil patent. Riddle also appears to have had the contacts that Mordan would come to take advantage of in the coming years. In 1824 Riddle appears in the membership list for the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers, and Commerce (Mordan does not); but in 1825 Mordan also shows up as a member and some of the other notables in that year’s list that Mordan knew (or came to know) were Michael Faraday, William Brockedon, Joseph Clement, and Thomas Lund. Riddle and Mordan parted ways in 1836 at which point they became competitors in the pencil-case business.

1831 Oblique Pen Design Patent #6163

William Brockedon (1787-1854) – William Brockedon had a wide range of interests; artist (see Faraday portrait below), watchmaker, writer, inventor, and more. In 1801 (age 14) he took over his dad’s watchmaking business during his father’s illness and continued to run it on his own following his father’s death in 1802. In 1831 he and Sampson Mordan filed a patent together for the oblique pen (slit is in the direction of writing). Brockedon’s most influential invention was a machine to compress graphite powder into pencil leads. Prior to this, solid graphite was simply cut into the size and shape needed for pencils and other uses. However, the famous Cumberland graphite mines were depleted and Brockedon’s invention ensured a continued steady supply of pencil leads. More importantly, Brockedon’s invention was almost immediately recognized to be of value in other fields, most notably in the field of medicine whereby medication could now be compressed into pill form. So we can all thank William Brockedon every time we pop an aspirin, take prescription medication tablets, or write with a “lead” pencil.

Clement & Mordan Lathe Chuck Design
Image courtesy of:
Wellcome Images 

Joseph Clement (1779-1844) – Clement was a colleague of Sampson Mordan’s during the period that they both worked with Bramah and in 1830 the two of them were awarded medals by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers, and Commerce for their advances in the design of lathe chucks (this would have been a big deal for someone making round things like pencil-cases). Joseph Clement went on to become one of the period’s best machine tool makers and worked with Charles Babbage, building the first working model of Babbage’s “Difference Engine”. My favourite fun fact about Clement is that in 1805, when he was a young man, he started his career building looms in the small northern England village of Kirkby Stephen; the very same lovely village where our daughter and her family currently reside.

Michael Faraday by William Brockedon, 1831
Image courtesy of :
National Portrait Gallery, London – NPG2515(24)

Michael Faraday (1791-1867) – Grace’s Guide to UK Industrial History lists Michael Faraday as an associate of Sampson Mordan. I was unable to find a direct business relationship, however, I did find one reference to experiments Faraday was conducting on some lead samples that William Brockedon had provided him with on behalf of Mordan.

In spite of having little formal education, Faraday is recognized as one of the most influential scientists in history and his discoveries included electric motors, electro magnetism, bunsen burners, and much, much, more. His accomplishments were recognized as being of such import to Einstein that he actually had a portrait of Faraday on his study wall, right next to one of Sir Isaac Newton.

Whether Sampson even realized it at the time or not, what a treat to have been surrounded by these individuals, most of whom were quite successful in their own right, and all of whom were major contributors to the massive technological advances taking place during this period in human history.

And honestly, come on, admit it… how great would it have been to be able to say that you were mentored by the guy that invented the flush toilet!?

For additional details on the lives of these amazing individuals, wikipedia is a great place to start :

Joseph Bramah
John Isaac Hawkins
William Brockedon
Joseph Clement
Michael Faraday

Gabriel Riddle – no detailed bio info found

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