Lewis Edson Waterman is commonly cited as being the inventor of the first practical fountain pen, just as Henry Ford is often supposed to be the inventor of the automobile. Neither supposition is completely accurate; however, it is certainly true that Waterman was the first big international success among fountain pen makers.

The story of how Waterman invented the multi-channel feed back in the 1870s is a typical stirring tale of Yankee Ingenuity.

tour this exhibit

or, view individual pen images:

c.1920 Waterman 42 safety pen

c.1918 Waterman 14PSF

c.1925 Waterman 52V red ripple

Waterman LeMan & Gentleman

Waterman Phileas

. . . . courtesy Jim Gaston

As the tale is told, Waterman (an insurance salesman at the time) loaned a new reservoir pen he had bought to a client to sign a policy; unfortunately, the pen (as was typical of these early examples) refused to do anything but blot the contract. The client, taking all this as an ill omen, nixed the deal.

Retiring to his brother's upstate New York farm for some serious whittling, Waterman soon came up with his feed, which he fitted to a pen made by his brother from a wagon wheel spoke. The pen worked well enough to encourage him to begin manufacturing and selling them on a small scale beginning in the early 1880s. He was granted patents on his innovations (which also included a process for machining decorative chasing onto hard rubber pen barrels) in 1883, and incorporated in 1888.

Thanks to heavy investment in magazine advertisements, Waterman was soon nationally and internationally recognized as a leader in the young industry.

Waterman's globe trademark was no idle boast; the company enjoyed a very large export trade, and by the 1920s had subsidiaries in Canada, France, and the U.K. The company's products earned a gold medal at the Paris Exposition in 1900 (which also saw the appearance of the first electric escalator) , a year before L. E. Waterman's death.

Waterman pens set the pace for penmakers up through World War I, and were extensively copied, both directly and indirectly, despite any number of patents on the Waterman innovations. The high point of Waterman's popularity was probably the decade of the 1920s, during which they offered a huge variety of models and sizes.

In the 1930s, having been slow to respond to technical and stylistic innovations by the competition, Waterman began to lose ground. During this time, they sold the Patrician, one of the rarest and most avidly-sought of vintage U.S. pens (examples in good condition can fetch $1,500 or more). The Hundred-Year models from the 1930s and 40s are also very expensive and difficult to find. During the later '40s and the '50s, the company really ran out of gas, and the remains of the U.S. Waterman operations were finally sold to Bic in 1959, forming the basis of that French firm's American production facilities.

The fact that the Waterman name persists to this day can also be attributed to the French. In 1926, a Waterman rep by the name of Jules Fagard established a French subsidiary called JiF-Waterman; ten years later, they would invent the first practical disposable ink cartridge (originally a glass capsule). JiF-Waterman entered the post-World-War-II era in pretty good shape, thanks to astute management by Fagard and his widow Elsa; when the parent company finally gave up the ghost, the French subsidiary carried on the name with further distinguished products. Waterman is still based in France, but has been back under American ownership (by the toiletries giant Gilette) for a few years now.

This file last posted on:
2005-Jan-20 17:50:26 CST
MCMVIII, the red network