January 27, 2015

The Eyedropper Era

[Posted on L&P on June 16, 2007.]
        Someone on a pen message board used the term “the eyedropper era”, and it got me thinking. What exactly constitutes the eyedropper pen era?  And more to the point, when exactly did the eyedropper pen era start?  In order to have an eyedropper era, you must first have an eyedropper.  And not all pens capable of being filled with an eyedropper fall within this eyedropper era.  For instance, all the Bion-type pens going back to 1650-1700 could now be filled with an eyedropper, but at the time they were made, they were filled either by pouring the ink in, or with a glass-tube pipette.  What’s needed for the eyedropper era to begin is, first of all, the invention of soft, pliable rubber, and then, secondly, the invention of squeeze-bulb technology.  The former didn’t come along until Nathaniel Hayward’s 1839 US patent for soft rubber, assigned to Charles Goodyear, and Goodyear’s own improved 1844 US patent for soft rubber, and Thomas Hancock’s 1844 patent for the same in the UK.  But that’s not the beginning of the eyedropper pen era, yet.  You still need the later squeeze-bulb technologies to be discovered and perfected and popularized before that potential is recognized and utilized and adapted for medicine droppers and ink eyedroppers.
        According to Mike Woshner’s book, India-Rubber And Gutta-Percha In The Civil War Era, the first squeeze-bulbs didn’t make their appearances until the late 1840s and early-to-mid 1850s.  They were used for such purposes as artificial nipples, breast pumps, saliva pumps, various dental and medical pumps and syringes, enema pumps and syringes, and air pumps.  There is even an 1856 pneumatic fountain inkwell with a squeeze-bulb, US patent no. 14,451.  In the 1877 Canadian patent for Might & Taylor’s fountain pen, no. 7,617, and US patent no. 195,719 later the same year, in Fig. 3 in both, there is an illustration of an eyedropper, although it’s called simply an “ink filler”.  Even as late as 1879, the Franklin Institute report on the MacKinnon Pen Co. stylographic pen, or ink pencil, or “Fluid Pencil” that I mentioned before in this blog said that the pen’s ink reservoir was “filled by an elastic syringe”.  It still used an archaic term, not the word “eyedropper”.  In fact, eyedroppers used to be known as Pasteur pipettes, named after Louis Pasteur, who used a variant of them in his research in the late 1800s.  And the Random House Dictionary places the origin of the word
“eyedropper” in 1935-40, which seems a little late to me, and places the term itself well outside the eyedropper fountain pen era.  It’s probably a term for fountain pens that was adopted and popularized by pen collectors, and well after the fact of the eyedropper era.  Before that, it was just called an ink filler that consisted of a pipette with an elastic rubber bulb.
        In spite of all my efforts, I couldn’t find a patent for the eyedropper itself, but perhaps it was already common knowledge by the time the first eyedropper patents were applied for, and it was considered prior art, and unpatentable.  Maybe it’s just a matter of finding the right title, or name, or search term.  So the eyedropper probably dates to some time in the late 1840s to mid 1850s.  In any case, the first “Medicine Dropper” patent that I could find wasn’t until 1868, US patent no. 79,487, and that one doesn’t fit into the Civil War era, so it isn’t included in the Woshner book.  But it would make a great traveling inkwell.  Even so, most of the pens of the period were still said to be filled “by pouring the ink in” rather than being filled with an eyedropper, US patent nos. 6,672, and 16,299, and 123,263, or filled with a funnel, no. 31,298.  Has anyone else been able to find an early patent for the eyedropper, or medicine dropper?  There are some US patents such as nos. 206,200, 256,206, and 296,963, for pens that incorporate a messy rubber filling bulb in the pen, and US patent no. 542,450 has one of the first US patent illustrations of an eyedropper being used to fill a pen.  Another later “Medicine Dropper”, US patent no. 448,555, is merely a pipette with a hole in its side to release the pressure, like an Aerometric filler tube, and it has no squeeze bulb.  The idea of the hole in the side of the pipette was also used in US pen patent no. 717,425, on its integral eyedropper stored in the end of the pen.
        Olle Hjort suggested another earlier patent with a possible first illustration of an eyedropper being used to fill a pen, “US patent no. 5,789 from 1848 showing a separate eyedropper for filling the pen.  The ‘india-rubber pump’ looks like an eyedropper but is used to force [or inject] ink into the pen instead of dropping it in”.  He’s right.  The illustration in patent no. 5,789 is probably the earliest representation of what may generously be called an eyedropper for a fountain pen, but it doesn’t look like one, and it isn’t referred to as such in the specifications.  It’s called an “elastic pump”, and an “india-rubber pump”, and it looks more like a turkey baster that’s used to squirt the ink into the pen.  It
also looks sort of like a balloon on a wand, but not Lenny Bruce’s.  ;~)

And the pen came in two versions.  The other one had a rubber sac and could be filled as a finger-press filler.  That makes two balloons!
        Here’s one of my favorite images of a fountain pen, US patent no. 630,526, Sheet 2, actually a gravity filler being filled with a quirky, proprietary, custom-fit, large-mouth eyedropper.

George Kovalenko.