A Brief Technological History of the Pen

It is really rather surprising, when you stop to think about it, that a portable pen that could carry its own ink supply was not perfected until rather late in the last century...none of the great writers before that time, from Aristophanes to Shakespeare to Dickens, were in a position to enjoy such an instrument. Whether the quality of literary writing has improved since writers could take their pens on the road is a question best left to literary critics; we will move on to the more limited question of how the pen was developed.

For the first three millennia or so since the invention of paper, the writing instrument of choice in Western (note the big "W") culture was the quill. One simply found a goose who could be persuaded to donate a tail feather, allowed the feather to dry, "gutted" it and trimmed off the excess fuzz (to permit a good grip). Then, after softening up the quill under moist heat, one used a pen-knife (of course) to shape the tough, horny shaft into a good writing point and split it to hold a small amount of ink. Then, one dipped the quill in ink and wrote a line, dipped, wrote a line, dipped ...

A skilled scribe could shape and use a quill to achieve many very nice (if not always completely legible) calligraphic effects. Of course, not everyone who needed or wanted to write was a skilled scribe, and besides, the quill points wore out in pretty short order and had to be reshaped frequently. What was needed was a pen that did not require hand work to make it ready to write, that could carry its own ink supply, was easy to fill and use, and could write reliably under a variety of conditions.

19th century dip pen

The point

The first step toward turning the pen from a handmade tool into a manufactured commodity was taken sometime in the early 19th century, when mass-produced steel pen points began to appear. These could be stamped from sheet metal, shaped, slit, and sold very inexpensively. These had various holes and folds manufactured into them to hold ink and to dictate their writing characteristics. The writer simply fitted a point into a simple holder, dipped it in an inkwell, wrote a line, dipped, wrote a line, dipped ...

Inspired by the invention of the steel pen point, contemporary inventors tried their best to eliminate the necessity for repeated dipping into the inkwell. Thomas Jefferson even used one of these early pens. These early portable pens didn't work very well, though, so the traveling inkwell became the Victorian analog of the laptop computer, teamed up with ornate holders and gold points. Ink writing had at last become portable.

Gold points weren't merely decorative; they were quite practical. Gold is chemically very neutral and highly resistant to attack by the rather crude ink formulations used in those days. Gold is also very soft, and would wear rapidly, so penmakers learned to solder on tiny beads of iridium (a very hard metal that is also highly corrosion-resistant) to reduce wear during writing.

Waterman 14psf ca. 1918

The feed

The problem with the early fountain pens was that they could not provide a smooth flow of ink to the point during writing; you either had no ink at all (skips) or too much ink (blots). These early pens did not have an effective means to allow in the right amount of air to take the place of the departing ink, so the ink flow was consequently not well controlled.

In the 1870s, L.E. Waterman developed his famous three-channel feed, which provided smooth, controlled flow of ink during writing, and made the portable pen a practical reality. Writing with a Waterman Ideal set up a small pumping action as the point alternately pulled away from and snapped back to the feed, allowing small amounts of air to make its way up the fissures cut into the feed and into the sac, balancing the inside and outside pressure and allowing smooth ink flow.

The amount of ink making its way to the point could vary, of course, depending upon the temperature, the kind of writing, etc.; the Waterman feed was therefore also designed to buffer small amounts of excess ink in spoon-like cavities beneath the point, so that surges of ink would not result in blots. Later manufacturers used comb cuts on the underside or visible portion of the feed for this purpose (the Parker pens of the 1950s used a complex internal assembly known as a "collector" for this purpose).

The Waterman Ideal and its competitors during these early years are now known to collectors as "eyedroppers" because that is how one filled them -- screw or pull them apart, and drip in a day's supply of ink from the long dropper that was usually provided with the pen.

Eyedropper pens were prone to leakage, because the caps did not always fit securely and the joint between barrel and section could become worn by frequent refilling. Waterman again comes to the rescue in 1907 with the safety pen, which worked something like a lipstick: the point could be retracted into the barrel by twisting the end of the pen, and the cap was then screwed on for a secure seal. Safety pens, which one filled with an eyedropper, were manufactured by Waterman through the 1920s, and by other manufacturers (e.g., Montblanc) for many years after.

Conklin crescent filler ca. 1920

The self-filling system

Science marches on, however, and in this case it was marching in the direction of a pen that could be filled anywhere without need for an eyedropper (who wants to carry an inky eyedropper around in their pocket? The pocket protector hadn't been perfected yet.). Roy Conklin's crescent filler of 1897 gets the nod here; in the Conklin pen, the ink is contained in a pliant rubber sac inside the pen barrel; also inside the barrel is a metal strip running the length of the sac, connected to a crescent-shaped metal tab that sticks out of the side of the pen. To fill the pen, one pressed in the crescent to collapse the sac and then put the point in an inkwell and released the tab. As the sac returns to its normal shape, it draws in a load of ink. To prevent the potentially disastrous consequences of accidental mashing of the crescent, Conklins had a hump-shaped ring that could be slid around under the crescent to lock it in place.

Various takeoffs on this principle were developed in the early years of the century, including the blow filler (the writer blows into the pen to collapse the sac), and the sleeve filler (the pen has a moving panel or section, exposing the sac which could be mashed with the finger), and many others; the two most successful, however, were the button filler (developed by Parker), and the lever filler (by Sheaffer). The Sheaffer system was soon adopted by most other pen manufacturers; it had a slight advantage over the equally-effective button filler in that the button filler required an easily-lost blind cap to be removed from the nether end of the pen in order to expose the button.

With the development of the metal point, the feed, and the self-filling mechanism, we at last have the basis of the modern, portable, self-contained fountain pen.

Sheaffer Lifetime jade green ringtop ca. 1925

New materials, new colors

Through the years around the first World War, the pen business grew by leaps and bounds. The typical pen of those years was made from hard rubber (also known as vulcanite or ebonite), which was one of the easiest materials to work with in those days before synthetic plastics. The pen parts were machined into shape from rods or tubes of hard rubber, and were decorated with machine engraving (chasing), or oftentimes clad in precious metals. Black was by far the most common color for these pens, but they could occasionally be found in red or other colors, or swirled, woodgrain, or mottled mixtures. Better pens used 14k solid gold points, while lesser ones made do with steel. Pocket clips appeared early in the century for men's pens; some were riveted in place (like the Waterman Clip-Cap), others were more ingeniously attached (like the spring loaded Sheaffer clip). Ladies made do with smaller pens, some having ring tops for attachment to chains (men could also attach them to their watch chains and wear them in vest pockets). Most of the major manufacturers offered matching mechanical pencils.

As competition became more and more fierce in the pen business, it soon was no longer enough to make a pen that just worked well; it had to appeal to the fashion sense and the demands of status. The striking red-orange color of the original Duofold was a distinctive change from the norm, but if you didn't happen to like the limited range of colors possible in hard rubber, you were almost out of luck. Almost, but not quite. Some manufacturers experimented with other materials such as casein (also called galalith or milkstone, a resin derived from milk curd) and Bakelite (one of the earliest synthetics, invented by Belgian Leo Bakke), or even such alternatives as horn or tortoise shell, but they proved to be too brittle or too porous for hard use.

In 1924, Sheaffer introduced a range of pens made from celluloid, a resilient, durable (and highly flammable) material derived from plant fibers. These pens, although expensive, were an immediate hit, and within five years or so, most of the leading makers had switched to celluloid as well. Celluloid came in a seemingly infinite variety of colors and patterns, and was especially suited to the Art Deco styles of the time, like the Eversharp Doric. Like hard rubber, celluloid could not be molded; pens had to be made by cutting or gluing up sheets, rods, or tubes of the material. Some manufactures made a virtue of necessity and came up with ingenious laminated or striated pens in contrasting color schemes. Even black pens came to be made from celluloid, because it would not tarnish or dull as quickly as hard rubber is prone to do.

Parker 61 ca. 1956

Technology wars

The period from 1925 to 1940 is regarded as the zenith of the fountain pen era, with many beautiful and highly functional writing instruments appearing all over the world. While many of the early US penmakers went under the waves during the 1930s business depression, the "big four" US firms (Parker, Sheaffer, Wahl-Eversharp, and Waterman) managed to bull it out. Parker, in particular, kept ahead of the pack through its heavy investment in research and development.

In 1932, Parker introduced the Vacuum Filler (later to be called the Vacumatic), with a new filling system that eliminated the ink sac. Tapping a Vac's plunger expels air through the feed and draws an equivalent amount of ink up through a breather tube toward the back of the pen, whence it accumulates in the barrel itself, which functions as a reservoir. Vacs were advertised as being able to hold twice as much ink as sac pens of similar size, and the use of opaque or transparent celluloid allowed the user to see exactly how much ink remained in the pen at any time. Around this same time, another popular filling system, the twist or piston fill, appeared both in the US (Conklin Nozac) and in Europe (Pelikan 100, later Montblanc and many other German pens).

During the 30s, while the other penmakers were still trying to figure out, with varying degrees of success, how they could get rid of their sacs, Parker went to work on its next innovation. The Parker 51, which appeared in 1941, was originally designed to use fast-drying Parker Superchrome ink, which necessitated several design innovations; these included a tubular point and a highly intricate collector (which served part of the role of a more traditional feed), both of which were dramatically covered all the way down to the nib by a plastic hood resembling the snouts of future jet fighters. Because the corrosive Superchrome ink could eat up both celluloid barrels and rubber sacs, the pen was made from a brand new synthetic resin called methyl methacrylate (known as "acrylic" or by the DuPont trade names "Plexiglas" and "Lucite"). The parts of the 51 could be injection molded, which greatly reduced the amount of hand labor involved in creating a finished pen.

Although Sheaffer abandoned its initial attempt to create a sacless pen (the Vac-Fil), it did create two new filling systems: the snorkel and the touchdown filler. Of these, the touchdown system was the more successful; it lasted into the 1960s, and has recently been revived for some of Sheaffer's new prestige pens. Sheaffer also created the conical Triumph point, which, like the 51's point, could take much more writing pressure than the traditional open point. In the late 50s, the attractive and highly-stylized inlaid point made its first appearance, and it continues in the line to this day. Sheaffer began using a polystyrene-like plastic called Fortical in their own injection molding equipment in the later 1940s, eventually abandoning celluloid.

Waterman's fortunes were fading in the US, but its French subsidiary JiF-Waterman was doing very well and masterminded the company's latest contribution to modern pen technology; in 1936, JiF perfected the first disposable cartridge pen, and went on to refine this design through the second world war and beyond.

The final word in fountain pen technology, however, belongs to Parker. In 1956, Parker introduced the 61, which used an ingenious capillary filling system that required no moving parts; just remove the barrel and submerge the back end of the pen in the ink bottle for ten seconds, and -- hey presto! -- you are ready to write. You didn't even have to wipe up afterward, since the filler's slippery fluorocarbon finish shed excess ink back into the bottle. Indeed, the 61 was, according to the copywriters, "like no other pen on this planet -- or any other"

Parker Jotter ballpoint

The retreat of the fountain pen

So, what happened to all these great pens? Why is it that the last significant innovation in fountain pens came more than forty years ago?

For one thing, pens like the Parker 51 and 61 were very expensive (at $20, the 61 was almost up there in house-rent territory); everyday users soldiered on with old-style lever pens, like the Esterbrook, and soon latched on to the even less expensive and more convenient cartridge fill pens that began to proliferate in the 1960s. The mass defection from exotic, expensive fountain pens, however, can be attributed more directly to competition from outside: the ballpoint pen.

A Hungarian journalist named Ladislo Biro, inspired by the gelatinous printer's ink at his place of business, created the first ballpoint pen in the late 1930s by loading a small tube with pasty, densely-pigmented ink and fitting it to a conical point with a tiny ball bearing at its tip. As the writer moved the pen along the paper, the ball rotated, picked up ink from the tube, and left it on the paper in its wake. The Biro brothers emigrated to Argentina shortly thereafter, but not without licensing the manufacture of its pens to an English firm. The Biro pen gained its fame among allied pilots during World War II, who relied upon the ability of the Biro to write in unpressurized cockpits at high altitude (while the Germans were probably still fiddling with their Montblanc safeties or wiping up leaks from their Pelikans), and ballpoint pens are still known generically as biros in many parts of the world. After the war, Wahl-Eversharp obtained a license to make and sell its ball pens in the USA based on the Biro patents, but was beaten to market by the upstart Reynolds Rocket (with the resulting legal battles destroying both firms).

Despite the rocky quality of the first mass-market examples, the ballpoint went on to resounding commercial success. The ballpoint pen was far less expensive and cantankerous than the fountain pen, and by the 1960s, the disposable "stick pen" (like the famous Bic) had relegated the fountain pen to a small corner of the market. The development of newer, more exotic fountain pens simply couldn't be justified under these conditions, so more recent fountain pens such as the Sheaffer Targa and the Parker 75, however nicely styled, have had to make do with modular construction and rudimentary cartridge/converter filling.

Parker Duofold Centennial (1988)

The (ongoing) return of the fountain pen

In the 1980s, things began to look up once more for the fountain pen; a new generation of writers turned to the fountain pen to add some enjoyment and distinction to their everyday scribbling. New lines of fountain pens were launched, recalling the classic designs of the past such as Parker Duofolds and Watermans. This revival has progressed to the point where manufacturers are coming up with new, low-priced quality pens like the Waterman Phileas and the Parker Frontier; at the other end of the economic scale, we are in the middle of a veritable plague of limited edition and commemorative pens which are to the everyday pens we mortals use as haute couture is to the clearance rack at J.C. Penney.

As an engineer, however, I am more intrigued with pens as tools and manufactured objects than as works of art; I am pleased that these ancestors of the goose quill are once again affordable, practical, and widely distributed. I am crossing my fingers in hopes that someday the sales volume will justify the kind of technological innovation and creativity that prevailed back in the middle of this century.

This file last posted on:
2005-Jan-20 17:50:23 CST
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