Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Diving back into history may be delightful or dismaying. KNKX's Nick Morrison delivers a daily dose of it with his signature humor and skepticism. Here's what happened on this day.

March 30: Sonny Boy Williamson is born and a 1858 pencil patent

The patent diagram for Hymen Lipman's lead pencil and eraser combo.
The patent diagram for Hymen Lipman's lead pencil and eraser combo.


Sonny Boy Williamson is born — 1914

Let’s clear some potential confusion right off the bat: There were two different blues harmonica players who called themselves Sonny Boy Williamson—not concurrently, thank goodness. The first was our birthday boy, born John Lee Williamson, who recorded extensively in the 1930s and ‘40s. The second was a man named Rice Miller, who apparently took the name to capitalize on the fame of Sonny Boy I, and recorded primarily from the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s. Both were essential to the development of blues harmonica playing but Sonny Boy I was a true pioneer. (And I’ve thought much of Rice Miller taking John Lee’s performing and recording name.)

OK, so—our Sonny Boy Williamson was born in 1914 and more than anyone else, pushed harmonica to the forefront of pre-war blues recording. In the decade between 1937 and 1947, he made over 120 recordings for the Bluebird/RCA label, many of which have entered the blues canon as foundational songs. To list a few: "Good Morning Little School Girl," "Early In The Morning," "Shake The Boogie," "Hoodoo Hoodo" (also known as "Hoodoo Man Blues"), "Stop Breaking Down" and "Suzie-Q." His output of timeless music is stunning.

In 1948 at age 34, Williamson was killed in a robbery as he walked home from a gig on Chicago’s South Side.

His was a short life with an abrupt, brutal end, but when I go back to his music, I’m unfailing delighted by the amount of joy he manifests. As in this song: "Suzy-Q."

Pencil us in

It was on this date in 1858 that a Philadelphia stationer named Hymen Lipman received his U.S. patent for a pencil with an attached eraser.

Between you and me, it doesn’t look like that great an idea. Hymen envisioned a pencil with the eraser imbedded in the body of the item, just like the lead. It meant that you’d have to sharpen the pencil from both ends; at the "bottom" to get to the lead and at the "top" to get to the eraser. Which, among other things, presumably meant that his pencil would contain less lead than other pencils.

I don’t know, it just doesn’t seem to be all that. Give me a more modern Ticonderoga #2 any day. Still, had it caught on, maybe today we’d call reckless behavior “sharpening your pencil from both ends.”

But maybe I’m being too picky. Hyman’s design certainly captured the eye of eraser baron manqué, Joseph Reckendorfer, who bought the patent for a reported $100,000 (about 3.5 million in today’s worthless scrip). Great for Hyman, but terrible, as it turned out, for Joe.

After Reckendorfer purchased the patent, he soon landed in court trying to sue another pencil king for stealing the design. Danged if it didn’t go all the way to the Supreme Court which ruled that what Reckendorfer purchased from Lipman didn’t count as an actual invention. Bye-bye to100,000 very valuable clams.

Hymen, meanwhile, went blithely on to found our country’s first envelope company. At least that’s what it says in Wikipedia. I have no idea how that turned out for him.

Toward the end of my "research" on Hymen (and erasers and pencils and unfortunate investment decisions) I came across a charming article in the archives of the New York Times magazine by someone with the delightful name of Pagan Kennedy. It filled me with warm fellow-feeling to come across another Ticonderoga #2 fan. It contains a diagram of the patent, which I now call "Reckendorfer’s Folly." It’ll also fill you in on the thinking of the Supreme Court in 1875. In case you were wondering.

Nick began working at KNKX as a program host in the late 1980’s and, with the exception of a relatively brief hiatus, has been with the station ever since. Along with his work as a Midday Jazz host, Nick worked for several years as KNKX’s Music Director. He is now the station’s Production Manager and also serves as a fill-in host on KNKX’s jazz and blues programs.