Ross Frederick George was born in Parker, South Dakota, in 1889, and arrived in Seattle with his parents -- Mr. and Mrs. Francis P. George -- not long after the Great Fire on June 6 of that year. The family settled on a small farm at 4th Avenue and Madison Street mere blocks from the cabinet shop at 1st Avenue where the conflagration was sparked.
As a child he attended the original Central School, and he also joined the YMCA, of which he remained a member for 55 years. As the years went by he joined the Plymouth Church, eventually becoming a trustee, and helped found the Church Athletic League. He married Eva Skinner (1890-1982) and they had a daughter, Frances, and a son, Donald S., who as a United States Army soldier was later wounded in the European theater during World War II.
A Font of Knowledge
By at least the 1910s, George (1921 E Lynn Street) was working as a graphic designer and sign painter. At some point along the way he reportedly studied under, and even worked alongside William Hugh Gordon, who is widely acknowledged as one of America's premier designers of commercial lettering of his era. As one historian has noted, "He became enormously influential. Not only did he make his mark on the lettering arts through his own work, but also in collaboration with another, younger, lettering artist named Ross George, later the principal author of the Speedball Textbook (a veritable primer for two generations of lettering practitioners)" (Downer).
George eventually founded his own firm, the System Sign and Art Service company (2607-11 2nd Avenue), where he managed a stable of artists who produced retail-shop signage, newspaper display ads, and lettering for "magic lantern" slides and show-cards for theaters, and later for silent films. Ultimately, George received acclaim as a lettering designer for his creation of numerous unique fonts that remain in use even now, well into our current digital information age. Tacoma's esteemed post-punk graphic designer Art Chantry has gone so far as to deem George, "probably the most familiar, most influential, most ubiquitous and the most important calligrapher, lettering artist, type designer and graphic designer of the last century" (Chantry).
George and Gordon's biggest claim to fame was for inventing a breakthrough form of ink pen -- one with a built-in reservoir for ink that also featured a unique, replaceable square-tipped nib. This nib allowed for making thin or broad lines depending on how the artist held it. The new pen sped up the work of designers who previously had been stuck laboring slowly with brushes and fine ink-dip or fountain pens. The duo then retained Seattle attorney Henry L. Reynolds, who, on October 22, 1914, filed the legal paperwork for a patent claim for their "Lettering Pen."
Meanwhile, the duo also contacted C. Howard Hunt of the Camden, New Jersey-based C. Howard Hunt Manufacturing Co., who struck a licensing/manufacturing deal with them. Then, in order to help popularize the pens among professional and budding graphic designers, "Gordon & George" collaborated on creating a tutorial booklet, Presenting the Speed-Ball Pen -- With Alphabets, Drawings and Designs Produced with This -- "Wizard of Lettercraft," which they published independently in Seattle in June 1915.
Their patent (No. 1,172,785) was granted on February 2, 1916, and production began in earnest on the Speedball pens, whose shell included a mark noting the interestingly named "Gordon-George Patent." Their original square nib (style "A") was soon followed by a rounded nib (style "B"), a broad-edged nib (style "C"), and an oval nib (style "D").
Gordon explained the attributes of the Speedballs in his 1918 booklet, The Gordon Book: Lettering for Commercial Purposes. Noting the myriad challenges of brushwork, he wrote: "To offset this difficulty a pen, called the Speedball broad stroke, has been devised to produce an even width line of uniform thickness when drawn in any direction. These pens are furnished with a bent-up section of the tip; some are square and some round" (Gordon).
By the 1920s, George and Gordon produced a new booklet showcasing a series of basic alphabet lettering plates that was titled The Speedball Text Book -- Modern Pen Lettering. Its popularity skyrocketed, causing it to be printed in multiple revised editions seemingly every year at least up through 1948. George subsequently issued various editions of another publication: Elementary Alphabets and Their Construction -- Speedball Pen Lettering for Beginners. Always seeking improvements, the ever-inventive George went on to win additional patents for a string of other inventions: In 1924 came a "Pen Clamp and Reservoir" (No. 1,683,030); in 1927 a "Lettering Pen" (No. 1,747,701) and a couple other "Pens" (No. 1,747,700 and No. 1,852,112); in 1940 a "Broad-Tipped Pen and Feeder" (No. 2,273,702); and in 1945, a "Ruling Guide for Artists' Pens" (No. 2,590, 243).
By 1925 George had done quite well financially and he and his family moved into a new home (3008 E Laurelhurst Drive) in Seattle's tony Laurelhurst neighborhood. By 1929 he had also begun listing himself as an "inventor" rather than an "artist" in the Polk business directories. But the years flew by and in 1949 he suffered a stroke and was compelled to enter a phase of semi-retirement. Meanwhile, when Gordon faced serious health issues, George bought him out and eventually paid a share of sales royalties to his widow. Along the way, the Georges' son married and he and his wife, Rose Marie George, had a daughter, Frances George -- the first of five grandchildren.
On February 19, 1959, Ross F. George passed away. He left his widow an estate valued at a reported $160,000.
Friends of the Nib
Today, George's significant contributions to art and to educating generations of up-and-coming designers is something forgotten by most everybody -- except designers. Among George's admirers was Harry Bonath, one of Seattle's top commercial artists, who recalled in 1976 that a Speedball pen was already considered a basic tool of the trade in his early days, and still is. "Even today, when an agency account executive wants a low-budget advertising layout, he'll tell us to 'speedball' the headlines, even though he may not have ever seen the pen -- much less use it" (Copeland).
More recently, the notoriously cantankerous and eccentric Art Chantry vented his personal frustration, writing online that while the old pro's "talent is immense and seemingly effortless ... nobody knows much about this guy." Furthermore, he wrote, "having lived in and near seattle most of my life, i have not been able to find out ANYTHING at all about mr. george. i know of nobody who recalls him or even knew he was based in seattle" (Chantry).
Perhaps so, but in recent years Seattle has been the home of a loose-knit group of cartoonists who meet regularly at Café Racer (5828 Roosevelt Way NE) under the organizational name of The Friends of the Nib (co-founded by fantastical artist Jim Woodring) in order to draw cartoons together. Even beyond that, over the decades George's Speedball pens have been embraced by generations of successful cartoonists including Joe Sinnott (Fantastic Four), Joe Rubinstein (Wolverine), Walt Sominson (Thor), Bob McLeod (Conan The Barbarian), Dale Keown (The Incredible Hulk), Mark Morales (X-Force), Kevin Nowlin (X-Men), George Preze (The Avengers), Andy Lanning (The Authority), Bill Sienkiewicz (The New Mutants), Drew Geraci (Green Lantern Corps), and Mike DeCarlo (Cartoon Network).
To this day, Speedball-brand pens are still being made and marketed by the Hunt Corporation.