Biography of John Lee Love, Inventor of the Portable Pencil Sharpener

ancient pencil sharpener
secret agent mike / Getty Images

John Lee Love (Sept. 26, 1889?–Dec. 26, 1931) was a black inventor who developed the portable pencil sharpener, which he patented in 1897. Not much is known about his life, but he is remembered for two inventions, the other being a plasterer's hawk, which works much like an artist's palette for a plasterer or mason. In the pantheon of African-American inventors, Love is remembered for devising small things to make life easier.

Fast Facts: John Lee Love

Known For: Inventor of the Love pencil sharpener

Born: Sept. 26, 1889?, in Fall River, Massachusetts

Died: Dec. 26, 1931, Charlotte, North Carolina

Early Life

John Lee Love is believed to have been born on Sept. 26, 1889, though another account lists his birth year as sometime between 1865 and 1877 during Reconstruction, which would have put his place of birth in the South. Not much else is known about Love's early days, including whether he had any formal schooling or what prompted him to tinker with and improve certain everyday objects.

We do know that he worked almost his entire life as a carpenter in Fall River, Massachusetts and that he patented his first invention, an improved plasterer's hawk, on July 9, 1895 (U.S. Patent No. 542,419).

First Invention

The plasterer's hawk traditionally had been a flat, square wooden board, about 9 inches long on each side, with a handle—basically, a post-like grip—that is perpendicular to the board and attached to its bottom. By putting the plaster, mortar, or, later, stucco on top of the board, the plasterer or mason could access it quickly and easily with the tool being used to apply it. The new design functioned much like an artist's palette.

As a carpenter, Love was likely well acquainted with the use of plaster and mortar. He believed that the hawks in use at the time were too bulky to be portable. His innovation was to design a hawk with a detachable handle and a foldable board made of aluminum, which must have been a lot easier to clean than wood.

Portable Pencil Sharpener

Another of Love's inventions, and one better known than the plasterer's hawk, had a much wider impact. It was the simple, portable pencil sharpener, the predecessor of the small plastic device that has been used by schoolchildren, teachers, college students, engineers, accountants, and artists the world over.

Prior to the invention of the pencil sharpener, a knife was the most common instrument used to sharpen pencils, which have been around in one form or another since Roman times (although pencils weren't mass-produced in a form familiar to us until 1662 in Nuremberg, Germany). But whittling a point on a pencil was a time-consuming process, and pencils were becoming more and more popular. The solution soon hit the market in the form of the world's first mechanical pencil sharpener, invented by Parisian mathematician Bernard Lassimone on Oct. 20, 1828 (French patent number 2444).

Love's reworking of Lassimone's device seems intuitive now, but it was revolutionary at the time. Basically, the new model was portable and included a compartment to capture the shavings. The Massachusetts carpenter applied for a patent for what he called his "improved device" in 1897, and it was approved on Nov. 23, 1897 (U.S. Patent No. 594,114).

His design didn't look much like today's portable sharpeners, but it worked by a similar principle. The pencil was inserted into a conical sheath and was moved in a circle, causing the sheath and the blade inside it to rotate around the pencil, sharpening it. Instead of turning the pencil against the blade, as with today's portable sharpeners, the blade was turned against the pencil by the circular motion.

Love wrote in his patent application that his sharpener could also be designed in a more ornate fashion to be used as a desk ornament or paperweight. It eventually became known as the "Love Sharpener," and his principle has been in continuous use since he introduced it.

Legacy

We don't know how many more inventions Love could have given the world. Love died, along with nine other passengers, on Dec. 26, 1931, when the car they were riding in collided with a train near Charlotte, North Carolina. But his ideas left the world a more efficient place.

Sources