The History of the Fountain Pen

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We really have to start with the question of what is a fountain pen? It seems simple enough - we all know they're those pens with nibs, usually metal nibs. But if we go back to when the fountain pen was developed, that's not what the term meant. Back then, a fountain pen was a pen that had the ink inside it - anything that wasn't a dip pen. At that time, a Bic Cristal would have been considered a fountain pen. As new types of pen came along, new terms were needed.

Other terms have changed their meanings over the years too. At one point, a 'pen' was what we would now refer to as the nib. The rest of the pen was the 'pen holder'. But with fountain pens being all in once piece, that terminology started to change. The word 'nib' did exist back then, but it referred to the very tip part of what we'd now call a nib.

We won't attempt a very complete history here - many books could be (and have been) written on the subject, so we'll just cover some of the more interesting (to us) aspects of their development.

The Beginnings

Compared to the main option at the time, carrying around a quill and a bottle of ink, the need for a fountain pen was fairly obvious to most. But developing a tube full of ink with an opening at the bottom where the ink didn't fall out except in very limited amounts onto paper, was not so easy. It's thought that Leonardo da Vinci may well have made one for his own use, way back around 1500, but it was well into the 1800s before they started to become reliable and commonly used.

They were still considered quite prone to leaking until some innovation started to happen with the design of the feed, around 1900.

Improving the Feed

A fountain pen could be said to consist of three main functional parts. There's a barrel, where the ink is held. There's the nib, which applies the ink to the paper. And then there's the feed, which moves the ink from the barrel to the nib. Early on in the life of the fountain pen, nibs were pretty well understood and in plentiful supply. The barrel was just a tube - that bit was easy (though as we'll see shortly, there was still plenty of innovation to happen there).

That left us with the feed. It had to get ink out of the barrel, and move it to the nib. Move too little, and the pen won't write. Move too much, and it drips ink all over your work. But it's a simple piece of plastic, with no way of knowing how much ink you're using, so it was a tricky thing to get right.

Waterman weren't the first to make a feed, but Lewis Edson Waterman developed one that worked better than most others. Essentially, it was just a piece of hard material with three narrow channels cut into it that the ink could flow along. Gravity got the ink to the feed, and capillary action would draw it along the channels to the nib. Later, he came up with the 'spoon feed', which added a space to hold excess ink, making drips less likely, and won awards for it.

Parker made some innovations in feeds, too, including their famous 'Lucky Curve' feed. A little curve to the back of the feed let leftover ink make its way back into the pen barrel after use, helping to prevent leaks.

As plastics and manufacturing techniques improved, so did feeds, leading to one of the most innovative pens ever made - the Parker "51". Back in 1941, this was the height of technology. Billed as the pen that wrote dry with liquid ink, it somewhat failed to live up to that promise, due to problems the special ink caused, but the hard work Parker had put into making that almost work turned out to make it a really great pen for use with more standard inks too. A large part of its innovation was hidden in the front section. A thin tubular nib was wrapped around a feed similar to those used in most other pens. But wrapped around the nib was a part called the collector.

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Essentially, the collector was a series of tightly spaced fins, touching the nib on the inside, and wrapped in the pen's grip section on the outside. Ink was gathered in the collector, so if too much ink was coming in, it would be held right there around the nib. If too little ink came in, the collector supplied plenty to keep the pen writing. The nib had ink wrapped around it, almost all the way to the tip, so it didn't dry out so readily if you stopped writing to think. Or were just distracted by whatever distracted people back in the 1940s.

It worked. In fact it worked so well that if you look at the underside of most fountain pen nibs today, you'll see its descendent - a set of finely spaced fins. Even a lot of rollerball pens and drawing pens have a very similar system - the translucent feed of a Pilot V5 Hi-Tecpoint (or Precise V5 for those in the USA) has those same fins visible, controlling the ink flow, making the pen more reliable.

Filling Mechanisms

Early fountain pens took the simple and obvious approach - let people do it themselves. The pen is essentially a tube that needs to be filled with ink, so open it up, pour in ink, and close it again. An eyedropper made this relatively easy to do. It had its advantages too - with no mechanism to take up space, all that space could be used for ink; and there's nothing to break. But things could be done to make filling easier.

Even the basic eyedropper could be improved - add a shut-off valve than could be closed up just behind the nib, and the risk of leaking was reduced. Eyedroppers are still used today, including some with this extra valve - often now referred to as a Japanese Eyedropper. Opus 88 pens, for example, are proving very popular with fountain pen enthusiasts, and they use the Japanese Eyedropper system.

For a long time, the most common filling mechanism was simply a rubber sac inside the pen barrel, with some method of squashing it flat. Squash the sac, dip the nib in ink, and let it go. The sac would gently spring back to shape, drawing in the ink. Many pens had a lever on the side to do this, while others had a flat piece of metal behind a slot that could be pushed down with a coin. Conklin earned the endorsement of Mark Twain by using a crescent shape that stuck out of the barrel - no risk of being stuck without a coin handy to fill your pen, and it wouldn't roll of your desk either!

Parker and Sheaffer produced some of the most successful filling systems. Parker's Vacumatic could hold a lot of ink, with a tiny rubber sac at the top being repeatedly pushed up and down to pump ink into the pen. It was later replaced with the Aerometric, which brought a new innovation for the age of air travel - being safe to use on an aeroplane. It could fill cleanly and easily, and some clever design equalised the pressure changes without ink being ejected from the pen as you flew. If you happen on one now, a Vacumatic is likely to need some work before it can be used, but an Aerometric might well be just fine - many of them are still in use 50+ years later.

Sheaffer's Touchdown system filled the pen with one stroke using some intricate, but surprisingly reliable, pneumatics. The 'Tip-Dip' variation added the ability to fill without having to tip the nib much further than the tip, keeping things cleaner when you filled up. Then came the Snorkel, often said to be the most complex filling mechanism ever made. It was based on the Touchdown, but the ink sac was attached to the end of a long thin tube, with a mechanism to wind that down so it poked out through the feed, underneath the nib. Now you only had to dip the end of the Snorkel tube into the ink, keeping things even cleaner. Not only did it work quite reliably, but they fitted it into some quite slim pens. They can be lovely to use even now, though most will need servicing if they haven't been used for a while.

Sheaffer also made the Vacuum-Fil, another way to quickly fill a pen with one stroke. While it's no longer in common use, there are variations of this still in use in pens by brands like Visconti and TWSBI.

Most of these filling mechanisms are at least mostly long gone, except in vintage pens, but some mechanisms invented around this time are still in common use. Piston-filled pens are still quite common, with brands like Pelikan and TWSBI selling lots of them. They can hold a lot of ink, they're easy to fill, and they usually have an easy way to see the ink level so you know when you're running low. Most cartridge-filled pens have the option of a converter to use bottled ink, and almost all converters are piston-filled, so after cartridges, it's almost certainly the most common way to fill a fountain pen today.

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But then cartridges arrived. Being able to carry a spare cartridge in your pocket was easier than trying to carry a glass ink bottle. The pen companies liked them because with less to go wrong, there were fewer repairs to do. They probably also liked the extra ongoing sales of their cartridges. Various things were tried, including glass cartridges, but simple plastic tubes soon became the most popular. And while those who really preferred bottled ink weren't entirely happy about the change, a converter meant they could carry on using their bottles if they wanted to.

These days, self-filling pens are relatively unusual, with the vast majority of fountain pens using cartridges.

Nibs

Compared with the feed and filling mechanisms, nibs haven't changed as much over the years. There has been a definite trend for them to become firmer. Up to around the 1930s and 1940s, most nibs were fairly flexible, spreading with pressure, and needing a reasonably gentle touch. A couple of things added some pressure for them to withstand pressure.

  • Ballpoint pens became popular, and they needed a bit of pressure to write well, so people became used to pushing down harder when writing.
  • Carbon paper became a common thing in offices. To write on carbon paper needed you to write with some force, which needed a nib that could write with some force without bending. Ballpoints were fine for this, but there was demand for fountain pens that could do the same thing.

Over the years, it soon became common for people to be more familiar (or even only familiar) with writing using a ballpoint, and at that point, flexible nibs were liable to be damaged quickly by people who weren't used to them. Children were no longer taught how to carefully control the pressure when writing, so now most people would find it very difficult to write with a truly flexible nib.

Beyond that, though, nibs now look pretty much like nibs from a hundred years ago, and still work much the same way.

As a slight aside, one term that has changed a lot over the years is 'stub'. A stub nib isn't a well defined term. Long ago, the term was used occasionally, but it meant a nib that was wider and not as long, having nothing to do with how it wrote. A stub nib was just a bit more stubby than the more common long and slender style.

These days, it usually means a nib that's partway to being an italic. It writes broader lines on up and down strokes, narrower when writing a line 'sideways'. It's more forgiving than a true italic, though, with a more rounded shape. When stub nibs like that became popular, though, we've seen manufacturers apply the term differently - a stub nib from one brand could be pretty much the same as an italic from another. Outside specialist calligraphy nibs, most italic nibs are a bit rounded anyway now, so sometimes there's little, if any, difference between a stub and an italic.

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The Place of Fountain Pens

Before computers came along there were typewriters, but back when a typewriter was a hugely expensive piece of equipment, the pen was a pretty important way to get work done, among other uses. Back in the 1930s, through until these computer things started to take off, pens were perhaps the most important piece of technology for doing work. That meant almost everyone needed a good pen, so a lot of money and time was being invested in making them as good as they could be. If a pen maker could design a pen that was a little bit easier to fill, or a bit more reliable, than others, there was a lot of money to be made.

But, like it or not, these computer things do seem to have caught on. Most people do less writing with a pen than they used to. And the ballpoint pen really caught on, as did later developments like liquid-ink and gel-ink rollerballs. They were easier to use and less likely to leak. To most people, they were a great step forward.

But, for some reason, we still have fountain pens. So why have they stuck around? We think it's because they still offer a nicer writing experience for those who want it. A good fountain pen is smooth. It feels good to put pen to paper. They're also very economical, especially when using bottled ink, and also relatively easy on the environment. That TWSBI Eco may be plastic, but it's certainly not single use plastic - it's going to be refilled hundreds of times. Even when you can refill a ballpoint, the empty refill is thrown away afterwards - after refilling your fountain pen perhaps a hundred times, the glass ink bottle can be recycled.

The real difference now is that a fountain pen is no longer an everyday essential for everyone. It's more of a niche product - a nicer pen to use for those who care. And that's very much ok for us - we care, and our customers care. That's not to say those who choose a gel pen don't care - but of the people who do care about pens, quite a large percentage choose a fountain pen.

Is Innovation Still Happening?

It's fair to say that innovation isn't happening at the rate it was when the fountain pen market was many times bigger. The fountain pen is still seeing some innovation, though, because along with customers who care about their pens, there are many manufacturers to care about them too. Many of the most interesting fountain pens now are made by smaller companies, often run by enthusiasts, who want to make the sort of pens they'd want themselves.

For example, TWSBI may be using types of filling mechanisms that have been around for a while, like pistons and vacuum fillers, but they've added cleverly designed bottles to make piston filling less messy, and to make a vacuum filled pen get really full, even on the go. Dante Del Vecchio has produced designs for Visconti then later Pineider, including travelling ink wells and the 'snorkel' filler to fill a converter when the ink bottle is almost empty.

So as fountain pens have become more of a specialist interest, the makers of them have followed, with some specialising and making fountain pens just for fountain pen geeks. And that's something we love - products for enthusiasts, made by enthusiasts.

2 November 2020


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