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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 fairly late in the 19th century. None of the great writers before that time, from Aristophanes to Shakespeare to Dickens, were in a position to enjoy such an instrument. Even Thomas Jefferson, who later in life sampled an early reservoir pen, had to fall back on the quill to draft the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
Whether the quality of literary or philosophical writing has improved since writers could take their pens on the road is a question best left to the critics; we will move on to the more limited question of how the portable ink 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, harvested the feather, allowed it to dry (often by immersing it in a bed of hot dry sand), "gutted" it and trimmed off the excess fuzz.
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 ...
Trimming and slitting quills for writing were crafts that took some time and experience to master (here's one online guide). 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.
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 were stamped from sheet metal, shaped, slit, and sold very inexpensively by the dozen or the gross (i.e., 144 to a box). These had various holes and folds manufactured into them to hold ink, and came in a variety of shapes to suit particular writing styles and applications. 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 emergence of the steel pen point (or simply the 'pen,' as it was known in those days), contemporary inventors tried their best to eliminate the necessity for repeated dipping into the inkwell. Reservoir-pen patents dating back to the first half of the 19th century have been found, and even a number of working examples, but they don't look very much like the pens we know today. Also, they generally didn't work very well (either leaving too much ink on the page or none at all), so the traveling inkwell and the lap-desk became the Victorian analog of the laptop computer, teamed up with ornate holders and gold points. Ink writing had at last become portable (or at least semi-portable).
The problem with most of the early (pre-1870) 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 gulps of air to make their 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, the kind of ink, etc.; the later Waterman "spoon 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 (some Parker pens of the 1940s onward used a complex internal assembly known as a "collector" for this purpose).
The typical pen: 1880-1900
The Waterman Ideal and its competitors during the latter 19th century are now known to collectors as "eyedropper pens" because that is how one filled them -- one screwed or pulled them apart, and dripped 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 opening and closing. An improvement on the eydropper, known as the safety pen, began to appear in the 1890s. It is believed that the Moore company took out the first patent on a "safety" design, which they called (with some optimism) the "Non Leakable" pen. The Waterman version, introduced in 1907, 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 tight for a secure seal with no exposed section joint. The Waterman Safety is today by far the most famous and most widely-imitated example of the breed.
Safety pens, which one also filled with an eyedropper, were manufactured by Waterman and other makers (such as Montblanc in Germany) right up through the start of the second world war, for the special delectation of pen-toting Luddites (particularly in Europe).
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 his or her pocket? The pocket protector hadn't been perfected yet). Roy Conklin's crescent filler of 1897 usually gets the nod here; in the original crescent pen, the ink is contained in a soft 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 mash the sac flat, and then put the point in an inkwell and released the tab. As the sac returned to its normal shape, it drew in a load of ink. To prevent the potentially disastrous consequences of accidental mashing of the crescent, crescent-fillers had a hump-shaped ring that could be twisted around under the crescent to lock it in place. The Conklin (like other future sac fillers) was much faster and cleaner to fill than an eyedropper pen; rather than have to deal with inky eyedroppers and loose parts, and pen barrels that had to be held upright, the sac-pen user simply worked the sac mechanism, wiped up the end of the pen, and got back to business.
Various takeoffs on the sac-fill principle were developed in the early years of the century, including the Crocker-style blow filler (the user blows into a hole in back of 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 and enduring, 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 a bit more time to fill (you had to remove the blind cap first).
We shouldn't fail to mention the Chilton Pneumatic Filler, made between 1924 and 1940; this pen may have been one of the simplest and most efficient of the sac fillers, and its design was so good that the principle was used during the 1950s (and again during the 1990s) by Sheaffer in its Touchdown models. Sheaffer added the retractable Snorkel to the Touchdown filler mechanism in 1952, creating what may be the last variation of the great sac-filler designs.
Meanwhile, in Croatia, an inventor aptly named E.S. Penkala was making highly original and advanced pens; according to current research, one of his associates, Theodor Kovács, developed the piston filler, in which twisting a knob at the back of the pen raised and lowered a piston inside the barrel. This system did not require a sac (although it did need good cork piston seals), and so promised greater ink capacity. The piston-filler was launched to stardom in 1930, when the German firm Pelikan licensed the technology and used it in its first self-filling pen, the Pelikan 100. The piston-fill system became very closely identified with German pens in particular, and the principal German firms all came up with little tweaks to improve the performance and ease of use of their piston fillers (the ultimate, perhaps, being the clever locking-knob filler used by Soennecken in its later years). Today, the majority of non-cartridge-filling pens sold today are of the piston-fill type (although sac fillers have lately made a strong comeback, thanks to Krone and others).
The third major category of self-filler is the plunger filler, which was associated first with the English firm Onoto, and later with Sheaffer (in its Vac-Fil pens). This system has the advantage of great simplicity; it has no sac or spring mechanism, but consists merely of a piston connected to a long thin rod that runs through the length of the barrel. To fill the pen, you hoist up the rod and then press it down smartly; when the piston reaches the botttom of its stroke, it enters an area of the barrel with a greater internal diameter, which breaks the vacuum built up behind the descending piston. The pen is thus emptied and filled on the same stroke. One flaw of the plunger filler is that it depends upon very tight sealing (particularly in the back of the pen); older plunger fillers may develop leaky seals that impair the effectiveness of filling and can lead to an inky mess. Among modern pens, Visconti has a couple of plunger fillers in its line; I have one, and thus far it has proven a reliable and efficient filler (as well as a fun one, thanks to its translucent barrel).
With the development of the metal point, the feed, and the various self-filling mechanisms, we at last had the basis of the modern, portable, self-contained fountain pen.
The typical pen: 1900-1925
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 hand-lathed into shape from rods or tubes of hard rubber (usually obtained from specialist rubber manufacturers), and were decorated with machine engraving (chasing), or oftentimes clad in precious metals (overlays and filigrees). Black was by far the most common color for these pens (the color resulted from the vulcanizing process), but they could occasionally be found in red or other colors, or swirled, woodgrain, or mottled mixtures (which are usually much more delicate than hardy black hard rubber owing to the different curing process). 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, originally as optional extras; some were riveted in place (like the Waterman Clip-Cap), others were more ingeniously attached (like the internally-clenched Sheaffer clip). Ladies often opted for smaller, clipless 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, using leads of around 1.1mm size; these were usually of the twist-propel-repel design. There were, of course, no ballpoints (they hadn't been invented yet).
The fountain pen industry spent its first two or three decades just figuring out how to make pens that actually worked well. As sales grew, however, and competition became more and more fierce, simple reliabiity and utility were no longer enough; the pen 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 Baekeland), or even such alternatives as horn or tortoise shell, but they proved to be too brittle, too soft, or too porous for hard use. For the monied classes, penmakers could offer overlays and filigrees, and many customers took their pens to jewelers who could customize them with all sorts of engravings, reliefs, and gemstones.
In 1924, Sheaffer introduced a range of pens made from celluloid (for which they used the trade name Radite), a resilient, durable (and highly flammable) material derived from plant fibers. Although not the first to use celluloid, Sheaffer is recognized as the first firm to make a success with the new material. These new pens, although expensive, were an immediate hit, and within five years or so, most of the leading makers had also switched to this new plastic. 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, and turning barrels and caps by hand on lathes. Some manufacturers (and their plasstic suppliers) 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.
Even small penmakers could benefit from celluloid, if they bought their rod or sheet stock from one of the suppliers that sprang up to fill the need. Sometimes, the most outlandish and colorful plastics are found on the most modest pens (where they helped catch the eye of the budget-minded buyer), and one often sees "no-name" pens made in plastics associated with other more famous brands.
The typical pen: 1925-1945
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 (well, almost). 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. Conklin and Sheaffer countered with their versions of the piston filler (Conklin Nozac) and plunger filler (Sheaffer Vac-Fil), and Wahl-Eversharp offered piston fillers on some of its models, while Waterman experimented for a time with the rather complicated Ink-Vue filling system, which was a sort of cross between the Vacumatic and the traditional lever filler.
Even as the other penmakers were thus 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 metallic-based 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 trade names "Plexiglas" and "Lucite"). The parts of the 51 could be cast or 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) in the 1940s, it did create two new sac-based filling systems after World War II: the Touchdown and the Snorkel filler. Of these, the Touchdown system has proved to be the longer-lived; it lasted into the 1960s (seeing its last use on some models of the Imperial), and was revived in an ingenious cartridge/converer version for some of Sheaffer's prestige pens during the 1990s. Sheaffer also created the conical Triumph point, which, like the 51's tubular 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 on the Sheaffer PFM, 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 related French operation 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.
Wahl-Eversharp made many fine pens after World War II (including the Skyline and the Fifth Avenue); although it did not apply a lot of high-technology to its postwar fountain pens, the company brought the first ballpoint pen to the U.S. market (well, it was almost the first, and thereby hangs the hevaily-litigated tale of Wahl-Eversharp's demise).
Technological development of the fountain pen was hardly a US-only phenomenon in the 1940s and 50s; in Europe, JiF-Waterman had already developed the cartridge filler, while the Germans refined the piston filler to a state of Teutonic perfection in models such as the 1950s Montblanc 140 series and the Soennecken locking fillers. Montblanc developed the "wing point", a conventional point of unusual tapered design that could be made more flexible than the usual kite-shaped points, and this design also spread to pens by Lamy and Pelikan. In Japan, Pilot Pen introduced the first (and to date only) retractable fountain pen, which remains (as the Vanishing Point model) a popular seller in the Pilot-Namiki line.
The final word in fountain pen technology, however, may belong 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" Unfortunately, as slick as this system was, Parker got too many returns of clogged pens and eventually abandoned it. Since then, most fountain pens have used cartridge/converter or piston filling (with occasional revivals of sac and plunger fillers).
The typical pen: 1945-1960
So, what happened to all these great pens? Why is it that the last significant innovation in fountain pen technology came a half-century ago?
For one thing, pens like the Parker 51 and 61 were very expensive (at $20, or about $130 in today's funds, 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" in the form of 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, once debugged, 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 filling; the fancy self-fillers of the 1920s-1950s had to go.
Whence came the cartridge pen? In the late 1930s, JiF-Waterman (the French sister firm to U.S. Waterman) developed the first disposable ink cartridges, which were originally made from glass. The idea wasn't entirely new; the Eagle Pen Company made such pens back in the late 19th century, although their glass vials were intended to be refilled, and not disposed of. The Waterman cartridge filler came into its own with the launch of the C/F (cartridge fill) pen line in the 1950s; these pens used an inexpensive plastic cartridge similar to those we know today (note, however, that Waterman now uses common Montblanc-format or "International" cartridges in its pens, and the proprietary C/F cartridge is long out of production). Most modern fountain pens, particularly those in the lower price ranges, are filled with cartridges; for those who prefer bottle filling (and you should be one of them), most such pens can be equipped with bottle-fill converters to turn them back into self-fillers.
The typical pen: 1960-1985
Despite heavy competition from the ballpoint (and later the rolling-ball pen, which used a more liquid ink and provided more "fountain-pen-like" writing smoothness), the fountain pen never really went away; it mostly just went upmarket. In Europe, particularly, the fountain pen remained the preferred tool of the educated writer, and the center of gravity of fountain pen sales and production gradually moved across the Atlantic during the 1960s and 70s. Both Sheaffer and Parker, the strongest of the remaining U.S. firms, expanded their overseas production facilities to meet the demand (and Parker, eventually, would make all of their finer pens in the UK and France).
This period saw a reinvention of the fountain pen as a high-class bit of shirt pocket jewelry; several of the major makers issued new designs based on their classic models (cf. the Pelikan 800, the Parker Duofold Centennial), and fine fountain pens began to catch on once again in the U.S. among luxury-craving shoppers.
Since these pens were now very expensive compared to everyday ballpoints (their makers having abandoned any pretense of competing directly with stick pens), some firms began to make a virtue of necessity by creating exclusive and expensive "limited edition" pens. Although penmakers in earlier decades did create pens for special occasions, and also accepted commissions for "bespoke" (custom-made) pens, it's only been in the past 20 years or so that the modern LE has emerged almost in its own separate market, complete with its own jargon, conventions, and (high) pricing policies. It now seems that no major place, personality, or event has gone without having some expensive pen named in its honor, and although one might chuckle at some of the sybaritic puffery surrounding LEs, it must be admitted that LEs have helped heighten interest in fountain pens generally.
During this period, the once-mighty U.S. pen industry continued its gradual dissipation; Waterman, of course, had already moved to France, while Parker would be sold to U.K. investors in the mid-1980s (these firms became siblings when both were sold to the Sanford corporation in the early 2000s). Sheaffer was sold to Swiss bankers in the 1980s, and again to French ball-pen maker BIC in the late 1990s. At this writing, Sheaffer is the only one of the old-line U.S. firms that continues to design and manufacture its pens in the U.S. The other dozen or so famous U.S. makes (like Eversharp, Esterbrook, Moore, Conklin, etc.) were of course long gone from the scene. On the other hand, European and Asian makers were more than able to take up the slack; Germany in particular is home to many strong firms that collectively cover the market from top to bottom, and the Japanese have greatly heightened their profile in the world pen market (and not only as makers of cheap disposables). Finally we note that China stands poised to become a major force in the international fine-pen market, both through selling its own distinctive brands and manufacturing pens for others.
While one might have thought the fountain-pen boom of the 1990s would turn out to be just another fad fueled by dot-com money (too many parvenú Yuppies with too much money), it appears that the recent shakeups in the economy have not put much of dent in the growth (in sales and diversity) of the new fountain-pen market. When I first put this site together back in the mid-1990s, the fountain pen market had become rather bifurcated; there were very cheap pens like the Parker Vector and the Sheaffer student pens, and there were plenty of very expensive pens selling for $200 and up, but not much of interest between these extremes. This gap has since been filled by many nice mid-priced entries from old and new makers. The price point of around $125 seems to divide solid-gold-pointed pens from steel-pointed ones, but the less-expensive pens need not be dull or rudimentary; old-line penmakers, new entrants (particularly those from China), and even specialty makers in the U.S. like Bexley and the revived Conklin brand have brought unique style and utility to the middle of the price range. Pen shows, which used to be primarily hobbyist's swap meets, are now turning into big traveling showrooms for these products, and you can often get good deals on them at a show (as well as from internet dealers).
And so, as it was in the beginning, it is now again: fountain pens are the tools of choice for those who value writing for business and leisure, and are not afraid to spend a bit of extra money and care to use them.
The typical pen: 1985-present