Meet John Lee Love: Inventor of a Better Pencil Sharpener

Inventor of a Better Pencil Sharpener and More

Sharpened pencils, close-up
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In the pantheon of African-American inventors, John Lee Love of Fall River, Massachusetts, will long be remembered for devising small things that have made our lives easier in big ways. 

Plasterer's Hawk

Not much is known about Love, not even when he was born (estimates put his date of birth sometime between 1865 and 1877). Neither do we know where or if he studied, 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 City and that he patented his first invention, an improved plasterer's hawk, on July 9, 1895 (U.S. Patent #542,419).

Up to that point, traditional plasterer's hawks were made from flat, square pieces of wood or metal, upon which plaster or mortar (and later stucco) was placed and then spread by plasterers or masons. As a carpenter, Love was likely well acquainted with how homes were built. He felt that the particular hawks used at the time were too bulky to be portable, so he designed one with a detachable handle and a foldable board, all made from aluminum.

Staying Sharp

John Lee Love's other invention that we know of has had an even greater impact. It was a simple, portable pencil sharpener, one that has been used by school children, 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 not mass produced in the form familiar to us today until 1662 in Nuremberg, Germany). But whittling was a time-consuming process, and pencils were becoming more and more popular. The solution would soon hit the market in the form of the world's first mechanical pencil sharpener, invented by Parisian mathematician Bernard Lassimone on October 20, 1828 (French patent number 2444).

Love's reworking of Lassimone's device seems intuitive now, but it was pretty revolutionary at the time, as it was portable and included a means by which 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 November 23, 1897 (U.S. Patent #594,114). The simple design looked much like portable sharpeners do today, but it had a small hand crank and a compartment to capture the pencil shavings. Love wrote that his sharpener could also be designed in a more ornate fashion in order to be used as a decorative desk ornament or paperweight. It eventually became known as the "Love Sharpener," and it has been in continuous use since it was first produced.

Later Years

Just as we know little about Love's birth and early years, neither do we know how many more inventions he could have given the world. Love died, along with nine other passengers, on December 26, 1931, when the car they were riding in collided with a train near Charlotte, North Carolina. But he did so leaving the world a more efficient place.