A Brief History of the Fountain Pen
, through a survey of the literature on its origins and evolution.
Since ancient Greek and Roman times, when we first started writing with reed pens and quills, there had been a perceived need for a pen with its own reservoir, one that could be written with for long stretches at a time without having to be dipped repeatedly every few words. It would be a pen that would write uninterruptedly, like flowing speech, in other words, a pen that one would have to “dip no more”. But there were problems with all the early attempts at making such a pen, mostly because the correct materials had not yet been found. Today we complacently regard the fountain pen as an artifact of the distant past, but our successful attainment of this “ideal” is actually a relatively recent achievement. In fact, the development of the fountain pen was made possible by a few technological advancements and discoveries that occurred only as recently as the nineteenth century.
Early Metal Pens and Quills
Early Metal Pens and Quills
The first attempts to create such a pen, however, date back to pre-Classical times. Julius Schnell, in an interview, said that the “ancient Egyptians” had “a kind of stylus which carried its own supply of ink”, and that ever since people have been “trying all sorts of ingenious devices to obviate the necessity of dipping into ink”. What he probably is referring to is the reed brush pen, with its end frayed by being mashed or hammered or chewed into a brush tip, and it is certainly not a reservoir pen. These implements are illustrated in the wall paintings and reliefs in ancient Egyptian tombs and burial chambers in the pyramids, but the earliest literary references to pens are probably those in the English translations of The Bible. In the Revised Standard Version of The Bible, the verse in Job 19:23 reads,
Oh that my words were written! Oh that they were inscribed in a book! Oh that with an iron pen and lead they were graven in the rock for ever!But this probably refers to stone-cutting tools for making mortuary inscriptions on stone monuments or monoliths. Later, the Romans wrote using a stylus and a tablet with a sheet of lead or wax for a writing surface, upon which the words would be literally “graven”, but one must not confuse these later writing implements with the much earlier ones referred to in this biblical passage. And although Jeremiah 17:1 says, “The sin of Jeremiah is written with a pen of iron”, it is probably just a metaphoric way of speaking that says more about modern mistranslations of a word in an ancient language, and the dramatic anachronisms that result from it, than it does about the actual word the ancient author used. The translators used the word for an implement that the ancient author was not familiar with. The word he used doesn’t refer to a real pen, but again to a stone-cutting tool and a tablet of stone, for it goes on to say, “With a point of diamond it is engraved on the tablet of their heart”, as if to say their heart were so hard it required a stylus with a diamond point to write upon it.
There is a reference to another scribe’s tool at Ezekiel 9:2, where we find, “And, behold, six men came . . . , and every man his slaughtering-weapon in his hand: and one man among them was clothed with linen, with a writer’s inkhorn by his side”. Matthew Henry, in his gloss on this passage, says that the man clothed in linen was clothed “as the priests were”. He goes on to say,
and he had a writer’s ink-horn hanging at his side, as anciently attorneys and lawyers’ clerks had, which he was to make use of, as the other six were to make use of their destroying weapons. Here the honors of the pen exceeded those of the sword; they were angels that bore the sword, but he was the lord of angels that made use of the writer’s ink-horn.Other references to pens in The Bible, but only in the English translations, include Judges 5:14, Psalm 45:1, Isaiah 8:1, and Jeremiah 8:8, but these refer either to an iron stylus or a reed brush pen. Henry Bore, in his book, also mentions I Kings 21:8, but that verse speaks only of “writing letters”. “Forming letters” would be a better way of translating the phrase. The Interpreter’s Dictionary Of The Bible, edited by George Buttrick, says that,
At the end of the third century [Before Zero, B.Z.], about the time when parchment made its appearance, Greek writers in Egypt devised a new type of pen by pointing the end of a reed [with a knife] and splitting it to form a nib. . . . This true pen was called ‘kalamos’, ‘reed’ in Greek, and is thus named in III John 13.In Ancient times, this split in the point to form the two nibs, or nebs, or tynes of the nib were called “fissipes”, or cloven-footed, or camel-toed. And in the 2nd Epistle of John 1:12 there is also a reference to “paper and ink”, or literally “sheet and black” in the original language of the epistle. Bore says in his book that the verse “in Jeremiah–taken in reference to the mention of a penknife [at] Jeremiah 36:23–would seem to imply that a reed was in use at that period”. The actual word in Jeremiah is “scribe’s knife”. Bore goes on to say, “There is a reference to ‘pen and ink’ in the 3rd Epistle of John 1:13, which was written about 85 [years After Zero, A.Z.], and as pens made in brass and silver were used in the Greek and Roman Empires at the time, it is probable that a metallic pen or reed was alluded to”. Bore is right about the word “reed”, for that is the actual word used, but his “metallic pen” is all conjecture.
The word “pen” comes from the Latin word for “feather”, so the use of that word to refer to a writing instrument could rightly date only from the period after quill pens were first used. It is understandable, then, why the ancient Hebrew and Greek words for “writing instrument”, whether a stone-cutting tool, a stylus, a reed brush, or a reed pen, were rendered as “pen”, since the first official English translation of The Bible, the King James Version, was published in 1611, right in the heart of the quill pen era. It is, however, an anachronistic usage with respect to the original languages of The Bible, which do not use the word “pen”.
The earliest image of a pen in European art, most likely a calamus, or reed, is the example depicted in a Pompeian wall fresco from sometime before 79 A.Z., the year the volcano erupted. The reed pen rests at an angle against a double inkwell. There is a relief sculpture of winged Victory on the Trajan column from 113 A.Z. showing her with either a calamus, or stylus in her hand, because it’s still too early for it to be a quill. There is also a similar image of Victory on the column of Antonius Pius from 161 A.Z. A quill might be represented in the marble statue of Egeria, a water nymph in Roman mythology, although the date of the statue is not known, and John Beckmann quoting Jakob Gronovius as a source suggests the probability that it might have been added at a later date, perhaps replacing a calamus, or stylus, but the reed pens on the two columns are high up enough from ground level for them to have been similarly altered.
Cicero in his Letters To Atticus, vi, 8, and Horace in his Odes, iii, 29, 53, use the word calamus in the sense of “using a pen”. Horace in his Ars Poetica, 447, and Juvenal in his Satires, iv, 149, use the word “penna”, but it occurs in metaphorical expressions concerning feathers. Horace uses the word “pennas”, or “pinnas”, for the flights of feathers, or pinions, and the beating of wings, and Juvenal uses the word for letters that fly on hasty wings. According to Edward H. Knight’s American Mechanical Dictionary of 1874-77, the earliest use in European literature of “penna”, the Latin word for a true quill pen, is in the Latin poem “De Penna Scriptoria” by the 7th-century Saxon poet, Aldhelmus, although Knight incorrectly ascribes him to the 6th century A.Z. In fact, he probably composed the poem sometime around 650 A.Z. In spite of this, there are a few earlier uses of the word “penna”, meaning “quill” as a writing implement. Isidore of Seville wrote of “reeds and pens” in his Etymologiarum, composed between 622 and 633 A.Z., and Cassiodorus Senator used the phrase “pen and ink” as a trope for “writing” in his Divine Readings, composed between 551 and 561 A.Z. The anonymous author of the second part of the Excerpts Of Valesius, composed around 550 A.Z., relates a story of the manner in which a quill pen was used by Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths from 493 to 526 A.Z. And Procopius of Caesarea in his Anecdota, also written around 550 A.Z., tells almost the same story about Justinian, the Byzantine emperor from 527 to 565 A.Z. Both rulers were said to be illiterate and could trace their initials on documents only with the aid of a template to guide their pens. Now, disregarding when it was actually written, if we accept as true the story of Theodoric, the use of the word “quill pen” can be dated to at least the 5th century, although the casual familiarity with which this usage is treated points to a much earlier adoption date, since all these authors simply use the word without feeling the need to explain the term. Therefore, we can date the adoption of quill pens perhaps to around the 4th and 5th centuries A.Z. There is, however, an earlier but spurious mention of the word “quill”. Roman Emperor Diocletian’s Edict on Maximum Prices from 301 A.Z. at first glance seems to mention quills, but only in translation. The edict was issued in a few other languages, and this part of the edict survives only in a Greek fragment. The prices for ink and two qualities of reed pens are listed along with “goose down” and various other types of soft cushioning, separately at the end of the section. In Frank Abbott’s 1911 translation of part of the edict the word is rendered as “goose-quills”, but in Elsa Rose Graser’s translation in Tenney Frank’s 1940 book it is obvious that the word used is not “penne”, or “quills”, but “plumos”, the Greek word for goose down, or feathers. The ink and reeds suffer from their proximity to the types of down, but they were grouped according to type of material, not their intended use. Even though the Latin translation of The Bible, the Vulgate of Jerome, dates to somewhere around 400 A.Z., a hundred years later, the Latin version of the text of the 3rd Epistle of John, 1:13, backs up the Greek word for “reed” by faithfully rendering the word with the Latin equivalent, “calamus”, even though the English translations of the Vulgate use the word “pen”. Furthermore, in his “Preface” to the four gospels in the Vulgate, Jerome again uses the word “reed”, even though later translations of the “Preface” into English use the word “pen”. And Alcuin in his poem about the bishops and kings of York, written sometime between 782 and 792 A.Z., still uses the word “calamus” and not “penna”, notwithstanding the fact that this was well into the age of the quill, and he should have known better. The word probably didn’t fit into the metrical pattern of his verse. Alcuin acquits himself, however, by using the word “penna” in one of the poetical inscriptions that were posted in various parts of the monastery. The inscription in the scriptorium, titled “Ad Museum Libros Scribentium”, says that the scriptorium ought to be a place of total silence, lest idle speech be the cause of a slip of the pen, and so that the pen of the writer can continue to follow a straight and true path. The word “penna” also appears in three notable later European texts, in Richard de Bury’s Philobiblon of 1344, the 14th-century Northumbrian poem Cursor Mundi, and Trithemius’s In Praise Of Scribes, 1494.
What was holding back the development of a workable metal pen was the lack of suitable materials, but that didn’t stop people from trying. The earliest metal pen found so far is one excavated in 1891 by archeologist Charles Waldstein in a 4th-century B.Z. tomb on the Greek island of Euboea. He claims that the pen belonged to Aristotle, and states that up to that time it is “the only specimen I have heard of as having been found in Greece”. Dietmar Geyer’s book shows an illustration of a Roman metal pen, a sort of metal imitation of a reed pen, but it is doubtful whether it is an actual reservoir pen, or merely a dip pen. These Roman metal pens were probably what Schnell had in mind in the quote cited earlier, but he incorrectly assigned them to the Egyptians. In any case, metal pens were known to the ancients as a solution to the problem of a reed wearing out and having to be continually resharpened. Specimens of such bronze pens, found in the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, may be seen in the National Museum of Naples and the British Museum. Domenico Monaco’s two books from the 1880s and 1890s show the two specimens at the Naples Museum. According to a 1907 article in The Scientific American, these pens are “the first and only evidence that we have of the early use of metallic pens”. There are also examples of what were thought to be other Roman metal pens in the British Museum, but according to Michael Finlay’s book, they have recently had their dates revised to the 14th and 15th centuries. Bernard de Montfaucon writes that the patriarchs of the church in Constantinople used tubular pens of silver. Everyone and anyone who did a lot of writing wished for the ideal of a durable metal pen with an ink supply of its own. In general, then, the consensus of opinion in Classical times would have agreed with the sentiments expressed in Medieval times by scribes who, in marginalia and colophons placed in books they were writing, damned their quills for constantly running out of ink, thus forcing them to redip their pens right in the middle of a word.
The earliest mention of a metal dip pen in European literature, according to Finlay, appears around 1375 in William Langland’s The Vision Of William Concerning Piers The Plowman, which refers to a “gilte penne”. Edouard Fournier and Edward Thompson both mention some deeds from the time of Edward III’s first campaign in France. A clerk using a bronze pen to disguise his handwriting forged these documents for Robert d’Artois. Finlay and Bore both quote from a book printed with movable type in 1465 by Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffler, the former partners of Johann Gutenberg, a book that glories itself in its colophon for not having been “fashioned . . . with ink of quill nor with brazen reed”. Bore also lists several early metal pens, including a silver reed said to have been owned by the Latin poet Ovid, who lived between the years 43 B.Z. and 18 A.Z., and which was found in the year 1540 and given to the Queen of Hungary. His list continues with some of the above mentioned pens, including the two pens found in Pompeii and Herculaneum, the silver reeds used by the patriarchs at Constantinople, and the bronze pen used during the first campaign of Edward III in France in the 14th century. In Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook of 1508, there are two illustrations of a design for a pen that seems to be of the rudimentary stylographic type, except that the tip of the pipette end is cut off at a slant, like a nib. There is no evidence that this design was ever implemented. James Maginnis’s lecture on stylographic pens has an illustration, Figure 1, of this type of pen, about which he writes, “but woe betide him who thinks he is in possession of a fountain pen which he can carry in his pocket and use at will”. He goes on to say “the laws of nature will assert themselves”, and this simple pen cannot be stopped from completely emptying itself of its supply of ink. Geyer points out a metal pen from 1538 made by Pastor Johann Mathesius. Kurt Grobecker and Giorgio Dragoni describe and Geyer reproduces an illustration from 1636 of a quill pen with a reservoir in its shaft created by mathematics professor Daniel Schwenter. According to Finlay, a 1544 book written by John Neudörffer mentions iron, copper, and brass pens, and among all the many writing manuals of the period, the one by Spanish writing master Juan de Yciar from 1548 is the only one to refer to pens of brass, iron, and steel. Alfred Fairbank and Berthold Wolpe tell the story of Peter Asham sending a silver pen to the governess of the future Queen Elizabeth I and offering to mend a silver pen that Elizabeth already owned. Samuel Rowlands, in a work published in 1600, writes of a “golden pen”. Ben Jonson, in his 1609 play Epicoene, includes “brass pens” in the list of the contents of a box of mathematical instruments. Joyce Whalley, Joe Nickell, and Fairbank and Wolpe all call attention to a writing contest between Peter Bales and Daniel Johnston in 1595 in which the prize was a gold pen. Finlay lists similar contests from the years 1563, 1838, 1869, and 1871, and also shows several examples of these prize pens. In 1672 the London Gazette reported on a “silver pen”. Mary Hatton wrote to her brother in 1680 that steel pens were available in Paris. And Charles Saint-Beuve noted Nicolas Fontaine writing on September 8, 1691, to Sister Elizabeth Agnes Le Feron at Port-Royal asking for some of the copper pens that she made.
The First “Fountain”
The First “Fountain”
In 1951, Egyptian scholar Hassan El-Basha Mamoud was the first to discover and paraphrase the passage in the story set down by al-Qadi al-Nu’man of a functional gold fountain pen made for Abu Tamim Ma’ad al-Mu’izz, the fourth caliph of the Maghreb in the Fatimid dynasty in the 10th century AZ, although no artifact survived. The story of the Mu’izz pen was recorded by Nu’man
in his Kitab al-majalis wa’l-musayarat (Book of Sessions and Excursions), published in 969 AZ about an event that occurred in 953 AZ. Nu’man’s book was translated into English in 1978, and Clifford E. Bosworth quoted the translated passage and wrote about this “Mediaeval Islamic Prototype Of The Fountain Pen” in his article in 1981. And then the books by Donald Jackson, Albertine Gaur, Geyer, Finlay, and Alexander Crum Ewing, and Penlovers.com and many other websites, all related the same story.
But it wasn’t until the 1600s and 1700s that we saw the first examples of functional fountain pens, and the first appearance of steel nibs. The author of a note in Notes & Queries, May 15, 1920, cited a bookseller’s label in his possession that listed fountain pens among the stationery items that the dealer sold, and he dated the label to around 1698. A citation in the Oxford English Dictionary of the work by Matthew Henry gives 1710 as the date of the first recorded use of the compound noun “fountain pen”, but it is used in conjunction with the term “fountain inkhorn”, an ancient term for an ink container, or inkwell. What exactly is being referred to is unclear, whether a fountain pen and an inkwell, or just two inkwells. Henry is talking about the passage in Zechariah 4:2, that refers to a candlestick with a central bowl of oil that supplies seven lamps that, “Without any further care, . . . received oil as fast as they wasted it; (as in those which we call fountain-inkhorns, or fountain-pens;) they never wanted, nor were ever glutted, and so kept always burning clear. And the bowl, too, was continually supplied, without any care or attendance”. If it does refer to a pen, then this new usage exhibits a keen wit in its playful use of words by identifying the first fountain pens with the ink containers into which quills had to be repeatedly dipped, as if fountain pens were carrying their own inkwells, or inkhorns in their barrels. It shows, moreover, that the term “fountain pen” was already well established and in common use by the beginning of that century.
Pierre Haury and Jean-Pierre Lacroux in their book write that in 1707 Nicolas Bion was granted a French patent for what he called a “plume éternele”, but it was not referred to as such by Bion himself. According to Finlay and Whalley, an illustration and description of what closely resembles a modern fountain pen, made of brass and silver, was published in 1723, in an English translation by Edmund Stone of the original work in French by Bion, published in 1709. Haury and Lacroux state that already “in 1657, in Paris, there were pens with reservoirs that could be used to write twelve to thirteen pages”. They do not cite their source for this information, but it is probably taken from the journal of a voyage to Paris in the years 1656 to 1658 written by Philips Zoete van Laeke, and the specific entry is for the date July 11, 1657. The writer of the entry actually uses the phrase “half a quire of paper”, and then goes on to say that when the penmaker’s “secret comes into vogue, it will make him rich in a short time, for there is no one who would not want to have one”. Grobecker notes an entry made in 1616 in the royal registry of Augsburg describing a pen with a silver-tube handle that could be filled with ink, and with a nib of silver or goose quill. Geyer and Grobecker both relate the story of another pen from 1632 given by the city of Augsburg to King Gustav Adolf of Sweden and now held in the Museum of Upsala. Whalley, Nickell, and Finlay all cite Samuel Pepys writing in his Diary on August 5, 1663, that he had a reservoir pen, a silver pen “to carry inke in; which is very necessary”. This pen was probably of similar design to that of Bion’s pen, although it preceded Bion’s “invention” by half a century. But on November 28, 1665, Pepys wrote that he was back to carrying pen and ink instead of this reservoir pen. He says that he “never knew so great an instance of the usefulness of carrying pen and ink and wax about one”, so he still perceived the need for a dependable fountain pen. In Stone’s translation of Bion’s work, the pen is called a “fountain-pen”, but in Bion’s French original it is referred to as a “plume sans fin”, literally a “pen without end”, or “endless pen”, or “eternal pen”, as Fred Gorstein renders the term in his English translation of Haury and Lacroux’s book. Diderot and d’Alembert call it a “plume perpétuelle” in their Encyclopédie. Perhaps the better rendering, by implication, would be “ever-flowing pen”, thus making the transition to Stone’s English word for it, “fountain-pen”, more natural. It was a pen that could write endlessly, or at least one that could be written with continuously for a long time without having to be dipped or refilled very often. The description and illustration of the pen are included under the major heading, “Of the construction and use of several different sorts of compasses, and other curious instruments”, and under the sub-heading, “Of the construction of divers mathematical instruments”. Apparently the fountain pen was still considered a curiosity, and was so novel a creation that it was reserved for special users and specialized uses only.
The finished quality of the pen in Bion’s patent and in his book points toward an even earlier source for the idea of a portable pen. Finlay shows three pens of the type that Bion described, with one dated 1702, which he calls “the earliest fountain-pen so far discovered”, and the others dated to the mid-century, but there are still the above-mentioned pens from the 10th century, 1616, 1632, 1657, and 1663 to be acknowledged. An illustration and description identical to the ones in Stone’s book also appear in A New And Complete Dictionary [Of] Arts And Sciences published by A Society Of Gentlemen in 1754-55, with a second edition in 1764-66, thus showing, as Finlay points out, that the form of the pen hadn’t changed in half a century. The 1758 reprint of Stone’s book is subtitled, “2nd ed. to which is added, A supplement, containing a further account of some of the most useful mathematical instruments as now improved”. In spite of this, the same illustration of the fountain pen is used, unimproved. What is truly disappointing is that Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary does not even mention the word “fountain pen”, thus showing that the instrument was still not widely known at the time, even by such a prolific wordsmith and lexicographer as Johnson. He did, however, own a silver quill pen, which had been presented to him as a gift according to a note in the March 21, 1891 issue of Notes & Queries. Dragoni in the book he co-authored states that Jacques-Louis David painted a portrait of his architect uncle Jacques-François Desmaisons in 1782 that shows him “firmly holding . . . what is unequivocally a plume sans fin”. Well, what it turns out to be, after all, is not an early Bion-type fountain pen, but a wooden pencil holder, a porte-crayon, which is not exactly chopped liver, but it certainly is not a plume sans fin. Shelby McCloy and the Larousse De L’Industrie mention another fountain pen made by Jean-Félicité Coulon de Thévenot, advertised in the Moniteur Universel on October 17, and December 3, 1790, and also called a “plume sans fin”. The first use of the word “plumes-fontaines” is actually in the French patents, William Grover’s patent no. 19,513 for Un Système De Plumes Dits “Plumes-Fontaines”, from June 24, 1854, but it’s the only use in the French patents. It’s a single occurrence, a hapax legomenon. But the Trésor De La Langue Française tells us that only in Canada is the word “plume-fontaine” used, calling it a uniquely Canadian regionalism. The word made its first appearance in the Canadian Patent Office Record starting in June 1875, and either crept into the technical language of patents from ordinary usage, or else crept its way into everyday language from the patent usage. And why not, when speaking French, use that word as a translingual retronym, borrowed from the English language and put back into the French again? It’s quite an obvious solution to the problem.
Throughout his book, Finlay still refers to fountain pens with the hyphenated form of the word, in accordance with the spelling of the word when it first appeared in the late 1600s or early 1700s. Now, his 1990 book is concerned primarily with the quill pen, so it is understandable that his predilection for the quill should be given expression with this archaism that also serves as a backhanded slight to the fountain pen. Thomas Ratcliffe, in his 1899 note on pens in Notes & Queries, bemoaned the loss of the art of fine-tuning a quill for writing, and all within the span of his lifetime. He writes,
The art of cutting a quill by adept “quill-drivers” was dying out when I first began schooling. . . . The goose-quill pen died a hard death as a commonly used writing tool. My first schoolmaster was a first-rate hand at cutting a quill, and he could use it with wonderful effects in flourishes.A person who can properly use and mend a quill pen, a gold nib, or a fountain pen, must surely be a master pensmith, for as Joseph Emerson wrote in 1826, “As there is no probability, that metallic pens will ever supercede [sic] those in common use, it will always be desirable, that every writer should be a penmaker”, that is, someone who is “licensed to quill”. Ratcliffe then went on to limn a portrait of the opposite type, neither a penman, nor a wordsmith, but a penster, to the letter. “My last master”, he writes, “could neither cut a quill nor use one to advantage. . . . Those who can cut a decent writing quill are now few”. Within the last two centuries, the fountain pen has put the quill literally out of business by replacing it almost universally. The exception to this general rule is the continued use of the quill pen in the lettering and typographic design industries, and the accompanying resurgence of interest in and the reflorescence of calligraphy in the 20th century. Graily Hewitt also takes the side of the quill when he writes,
No doubt the modern fountain pen with its iridium points has advantages . . . for common service: constancy, readiness, general convenience. Yet the quill remains the tool of the craftsman”.The correspondent in the Sheffied Daily Telegraph, January 11, 1872, writes that, before the close of the 18th century, he made brass pens, “which, however, he never used, nor steel ones either, as long as he could get a ‘goose quill’, good, bad or indifferent”. The author of the note in Notes & Queries, July 19, 1873, gives a short personal history of the steel and gold pens that he encountered, but he ends with, “From the introduction of steel pens to the present time I have sought for a good one; but neither in gold nor iron have I found anything so pleasant to write with as a good or even middling goose-quill”.
Jackson mentions Roger North who writes on March 8, 1700, that he is using a steel nib made in France. His letter to Mrs. Foley reads,
You will hardly tell by what you see that I write with a steel pen. It is a device come out of France, of which the original was very good, and wrote very well, but this is but a copy ill made. When they get the knack of making them exactly, I do not doubt but the government of the goose quill is near an end, for none that can have these will use others.John Byrom, in a letter to his sister in August 1723, talks of using steel pens. In 1730 Edmund Waller published a poem he wrote to a lady upon receiving a silver pen from her. Maginnis and Jackson write that in 1748 Johann Janssen, a Prussian, claimed to have invented steel nibs. An entry for July 19, 1750, in Henry Purefoy’s letters refers to fountain pens. David Carvalho and Finlay state that Arnoux, a French mechanic, made steel pens around 1750. As for England, Samuel Harrison was making steel pens there in 1780, and in France, Theodore Bertin writes in his 1792 book on shorthand that steel and platinum nibs are “convenient”, but he also mentions an “endless pen”, which he says “would certainly be the best”. In America, the inventor of the steel pen was claimed to have been Peregrine Williamson, around 1800, and his 1809 patent bears this out. To throw another wrench into the works, a letter published in The Scientific American in 1878 on early manufacture of metal nibs states that the Shakers were the “originators of metal pens”, and that they had made silver pens with “one slit” in 1819 and pens of brass “two or three years previously”. But more to the point, Geyer mentions a German mechanic named Scheller who in 1780 developed a “traveling pen” of bronze and horn with a goose-quill point. Geyer also shows an illustration of what looks like the same pen, but this time he calls it a “portable pen” and gives it the date 1781. Samuel Taylor, in his 1786 book on shorthand, remarks on the existence of steel and silver pens at the time, and as well makes a critical comment on the fountain pens of the day when he writes, “For expeditious writing, some use what are called fountain pens, into which ink is put, which gradually flows when writing . . . ; but as it is a hard matter to meet with a good one of this kind, I would recommend a steel or silver one”. An advertisement in the London Morning Chronicle on June 11, 1788, offered “Portable Fountain Pens to carry ink [in]”, as noted by J. H. Fennell in the October 1882 issue of the Antiquarian Chronicle. Fanny Burney, writing in her Diary on August 18, 1789, says that she was using a “fountain pen” to write in her journal. And William Wordsworth writes in a letter to his sister on December 23, 1806, that he is using one of the “steel pens with which Miss Hutchinson has just furnished me”. Even Byron specifies in a letter of May 3, 1810, that he is “writing with the gold pen” that had been given to him by George Butler, “which is the reason my scrawl is more unintelligible [sic] than usual”. The gold nib was still an imperfect writing implement. He goes on to say, “I have been at Athens and seen plenty of those reeds for scribbling . . . brought from Attica”, thus showing that these reeds were still being used for writing as late as that date.
In the 1800s, all that remained to be discovered regarding steel nibs was a way to make them more flexible, and a way to mass-produce them mechanically. Maginnis, the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1911), and Nickell state that James Perry, in his 1830 patent, achieved greater flexibility by drilling a hole at the top of the slit in the nib. Neil Leyland neglects to include this patent in his list of UK patents in the Journal Of The Writing Equipment Society, but Michael Cooper, in his article in the same issue of the Journal, corrects this oversight by including it in his discussion of flexibility of steel nibs. In his 1831 patent, Joseph Gillott achieved an improvement in flexibility that consisted, in part, of making nibs with thin, elongated, tapered points. Finlay, however, states that Jacob Wise was already making such flexible nibs around 1803, and he shows an example of an anonymous, unstamped nib with an elongated aperture at the top of the slit that preceded Perry’s patent. As Finlay tells it, some flexible nibs Gillott was shown in 1822 definitely influenced him, and he started making such nibs only after he had seen them. In fact, the discovery was probably “in the air”, so to speak, and belongs to no one person. Bore wrote that he “failed to trace” the originator of mechanically made nibs, “and his identity is lost among the ‘sowers’ who failed to reap the harvest of their inventions”. As a comic aside, Thomas Hood wrote his hilarious poem, Ode To Perry, The Inventor Of The Patent Perryan Pen, around 1829 or 1830, so Perry’s pens were famous right from the start.
The Britannica (1911) and Maginnis credit John Mitchell as the first maker of machine-made nibs in 1822, and James Perry as the first maker of steel slip nibs, ones that slip into a curved slot in the end of a separate holder. Until then, steel pens consisted of a metal tube with a nib formed at one end and a holder with a tapered end inserted into the other end of the tube. Geyer writes that it is John Mitchell who got the idea of stamping pen nibs out of thin sheets of rolled steel by using a steam-driven stamping machine. At the same time, Nickell credits Gillott with developing this modern method of nib making by shaping them from blanks stamped out of sheets of rolled steel. The point is moot, according to Knight and Finlay, because Joseph Bramah was already selling “quill nibs”, which he called “fragment forms” in his 1809 patent. These quill slip nibs were the precursors of steel slip nibs. A quill’s shaft was split in half lengthwise and then four or five nibs were made from each half of the shaft. These semi-cylindrical nibs had to be slipped into a curved slot in the end of a pen holder, in the same manner as steel slip nibs, thus leading Knight to say, “They were perhaps the first nibs, the progenitors of a host of steel, gold, and other nibs”. The Encyclopaedia Britannica (1962) states that it was Bramah’s invention that “first familiarized the public with the appearance and use of the nib slipped into a holder”. But Finlay cites an even earlier source. He credits Thomas Palmer with producing such nibs in 1806, cut by hand with a knife, but he does credit Bramah with producing the first quill nibs with the aid of a machine. It is interesting to note, in a belated revelation of plagiarism, that Carvalho’s 1904 book borrows and repeats verbatim the above quote from Knight, and much more material surrounding this quote, without acknowledgement or citation of his source.
With these developments, the modern look, if not the material substance, of a fountain pen nib had been achieved. What Bramah’s quill slip nib, and later the steel slip nib, contributed to the design of the fountain pen was the process of manufacture of nibs by stamping out separate blanks. The familiar shape of the slip nib, further design features for greater flexibility, and the whole concept of their attachment to a separate holder by being inserted into it, had been achieved. Without these advances, the modern fountain pen would not have been possible. All it took at this point was a flash of inspiration to see that the dip penholder could be made hollow in order to accommodate an ink supply chamber. It was the process of manufacture and design of steel slip nibs in general that the steel nib contributed to the fountain pen, for fountain pen nibs are still made in this way today. However, the material from which the steel nib was made was still too corrodible to make a long-lasting nib, and it did not have any overall impact on the development of the fountain pen.
As a peripheral development, many inventors came up with what are known as “reservoir nibs”. Edward Johnston, Hewitt, and Maginnis illustrate in their respective works examples of such nibs. A piece of metal was attached to a nib in a way that created an ink cavity, thus allowing the nib to hold just a little more ink than usual, and also allowing the nib to write a little longer between dips. Johnston and Hewitt show some of these methods as applied to a quill pen, and Maginnis illustrates thirty-nine patents from the late 1800s that utilized similar methods on steel nibs. But the reservoir nib is still far from the ideal of a true, dipless fountain pen, and these inventions and adaptations are all much later and well into the age of the fountain pen, which had made such inventions superfluous.
But to get back to the story, in the early 1800s, more attempts at a workable fountain pen were being made. Bore mentions Herbert’s 1837 Encyclopaedia, which says that Jacob Wise also made “perpetual pens . . . some twenty-five or thirty years [ago]”. In 1809 Frederick B. Fölsch received a patent for a valve-filling pen with a glass barrel. Joseph Bramah also patented plans for a fountain pen in 1809. In 1819 John Scheffer patented his “penographic writing instrument”, on display in the Science Museum in London. According to Maginnis and Finlay, James Henry Lewis also received a patent for a fountain pen in 1819, one much like Bramah’s. It is described in the patent as, “An improvement or substitute for or addition to pens as usually employed in the art of writing, which he denominates ‘caligraphic [sic] fountain pen’”. By 1823 the term “fountain pen” was common enough to be included as a separate category in A Dictionary Of Mathematics And Physical Sciences. In a letter of May 13, 1824, Thomas Jefferson wrote that he had purchased a fountain pen made by William Cowen of Richmond, Virginia, and that he considered it “one of the best I ever saw”. It was a Bion-type fountain pen with a silver barrel and a replaceable quill slip nib, thus showing that, even at this late date, the technology still hadn’t progressed much, and that this type of pen was still considered state of the art. In 1826 William Johnston received a patent for a fountain pen much like Scheffers’s, and in the same year, Lewis wrote that thousands of his pens had already been made. In 1827 George Poulton received a UK patent for a “self-supplying pen”, and finally in 1830 Douglass Hyde received the first US patent for a fountain pen. In 1832 John Jacob Parker received a UK patent for a screw-piston-filling pen that was probably the first self-filling pen, one that was filled by immersing the nib in the ink in order to draw the ink up into the barrel with the piston. In contrast, most of the other fountain pens of the day were filled with a funnel, or a glass pipette. Most of these pens were never actually produced commercially. Perhaps a working prototype was made, and a few samples were made for sale, but they surely were never put into full-scale production. However, Sampson Mordan, in an undated illustration reproduced in Jackson’s book, advertised a “self-filling pen” some time in the early 1830s, a pen that looks very much like Scheffer’s penographic. Knight states that Mordan did indeed make pens around 1835 on Scheffer’s design. In 1838 John Edwards received a patent for a fountain pen with a telescopically sliding filling system. Jackson cites the 1840 Penny Cyclopaedia as mentioning a portable writing instrument with a “reservoir . . . to supply ink for some time without replenishing”. And finally, in 1849 Robert William Thomson received a patent for a pen that still had to resort to utilizing a glass barrel. The time had come to conceive of something other than just the same old tried methods and tired old materials. The stage was set for the seminal discoveries.
It has been said by many that in the mid-1800s, the Western world started to travel and work and live at what was called a “railroad pace”. It just went clickety-clack. Well, the fountain pen, like the railroad, was one of a host of 19th-century technologies and inventions that enabled us to go farther, faster. In this period, even international disputes were being solved more often with diplomacy, or on a rhetorical level, rather than with the clash of arms. They finally realized the idea that the scribbling pen is mightier than the rattling sabre. The pen is not a “vorpal blade” that goes “snicker-snack”, but a verbal blade that goes scribble-scratch. It turns a mode de guerre into a mot de plume.
The final steps toward making a workable, reliable fountain pen were taken in that period of history. Until then, all the ingenious designs that had come along had one problem in common, that is, they were executed in the wrong materials. Though noncorrodible, gold was too expensive and too soft to make an affordable, long-lasting fountain pen. Other metals were corroded by the acidic ink, and wood absorbed the water in the ink and expanded and cracked. Other materials such as horn and quill were not durable enough. Even the steel nibs corroded and wore out. So this was the situation at mid-century. The search was on for the correct materials, both for the nib and the barrel of the pen. Two additional problems also stood in the way. One was the perfection of a reliable capillary feed mechanism, the means by which ink was conveyed out to the nib in a balanced equilibrium with the air that was conveyed back into the ink-supply chamber to replace the ink that had flowed out. The other was the perfection of clean and simple methods for filling a pen with ink, that is, the various types of self-filling mechanisms.
Gold is an ideal substance for nibs, but only in the respect that it is highly resistant to corrosion. Finlay mentions seven or eight examples of gold pens from the 1300s to the 1800s, and also to this end, Charles Watt received a patent in 1818 for the gilding of quills. But gold is much too soft to be used alone, for by itself it wears away far too easily. To solve this problem, John Isaac Hawkins and Sampson Mordan received a patent in 1822 for, among other things, nibs of horn and tortoise shell tipped with diamond, ruby, or other very hard substances. But the best solution was an 1808 patent by Bryan Donkin for a nib composed of two separate strips of gold tipped with rhodium. This eventually evolved into a gold nib, made in one piece from a stamped-out blank, with elongated points, a slit with a hole at its top, and a tip made of an alloy of iridium and osmium. The nib was flexible, and resistant to corrosion and wear. However, this technical innovation has been claimed by or ascribed to various individuals. Cliff and Judy Lawrence stated that George W. Sheppard developed the first gold nib tipped with iridium in Detroit in 1840. An article in The Scientific American in 1866 credits Levi Brown of Detroit in 1840 as the first to make gold nibs tipped with an alloy of iridium and platinum. Albert S. Osborn claims that the discovery that an alloy of iridium and osmium could be soldered to the point of a gold nib was made by John Isaac Hawkins, whom he calls “an American residing in England”, but he gives no date. Still further, Grobecker claims that “the Englishman Malet invented the osmium-iridium tip” in 1841, Geyer writes that a Frenchman named Mallet discovered a way to solder a “splinter” of osmium-iridium to a gold nib in 1843, and Haury and Lacroux state that in 1843 Jean-Benoît Mallat merely “initiated the production of gold nibs with iridium points” after first having tried making nibs with ruby tips.
It seems like this discovery was another of those that was in the air, but not according to the chronology of events supplied by Finlay, and one that concurs with the more basic account offered by Maginnis. William Hyde Wollaston, in partnership with Smithson Tennant, discovered the four related platinoid elements, palladium, rhodium, iridium, and osmium, around 1804. Their researches led to the discovery of an extremely hard alloy of rhodium and tin that was useful for pen points. Wollaston made a silver nib of the two-strip type tipped with the rhodium alloy around 1822, and T. C. Robinson employed this alloy to make gold nibs on Wollaston’s pattern in about 1823 or 1824. William P. Doughty made ruby-tipped gold nibs in about 1822, and Hawkins and Mordan got their patent to make ruby-tipped horn nibs in 1822. By 1827 Mordan was advertising that he was selling “gold, silver, steel, rhodium, and ruby” nibs. But it was Hawkins who first found a completely successful nib. As early as 1804 he was trying to find a hard material to solder to the tips of gold nibs. In 1833 he heard of Wollaston’s researches, and he began to experiment with a natural alloy of iridium and osmium, osmiridium, or iridosmine, that Wollaston also discovered at the same time as the rhodium-tin alloy discovery. Earlier, Robinson also had known of this alloy, although he rejected it as too hard to work with, but Hawkins saw this property of durability as exactly what was required. In 1834 he finally made his first successful gold nib tipped with the alloy. Hawkins sold his business to Aaron Cleveland in 1836, who passed the nib-making skills on to Simeon Hyde of New York. It was in the United States that the making of iridium-osmium pointed gold nibs was most successful, and by 1849 there were fifteen manufacturers of such nibs in the United States, mostly in New York, but also in Detroit and elsewhere. The Scientific American reported on September 4, 1852, that “New York is the headquarters of the manufacture [of gold nibs], and there are now perhaps no less than forty makers in this city”. One of these was John Foley, who related many of these events in a book he published ca. 1875-76. In England, Sampson Mordan also became a leading manufacturer of these types of nibs within a few years of Hawkins’s sale of his business, and Francis Mordan, Sampson’s son, advertised and boasted about his father’s nibs in two books published in 1858 and 1892. This type of nib caught on and was used for fountain pens almost universally since the last couple of decades of the 1800s and till the present. Although the steel nib was used commercially in dip pens only until the middle of the 1900s, it would continue to be used up to the present by artists, and calligraphers, and draftsmen, and graphic designers.
The search for a material from which to make the barrel of the fountain pen also ended at about the same epoch, so that the two discoveries converged in time. In 1838 Charles Goodyear was experimenting with a process of making a rubber-coated cloth that would be a more serviceable product than the one available at the time. Unvulcanized rubber was highly unsatisfactory, because in hot weather it turned sticky and gave off a foul odor, and in cold weather it froze and cracked. Goodyear was working with some clues supplied by the research of Nathaniel Hayward, a partner of his at the time who was experimenting with the effects of sulphuric acid on latex rubber, when he realized the importance of sulphur in the process that turns rubber into a soft, pliable, elastic material. Although the process was not yet perfected, Hayward was persuaded by Goodyear to apply for a patent in November 1838, and to sign the patent over to Goodyear for a sum of money and certain concessions. Goodyear continued to experiment, and in January 1839, he accidentally stumbled upon the process by which the application of heat to the sulphur and rubber vulcanized the mixture. Although Goodyear discovered vulcanization in 1838-39, and the patent was issued on February 24, 1839, Goodyear didn’t achieve any financial success with the product until after June 15, 1844, when he got his own patent for vulcanization after five years of experimenting with and perfecting the process. In the meantime, Thomas Hancock received a patent in England for manufacturing Caoutchouc, or elastic India Rubber, patent no. 9,952 from May 30, 1844. It was Hancock who first observed that if rubber were allowed to remain too long in a bath of molten sulphur it became black and hard, and he said so in his patent. It is because of this that Ralph Wolf states in his book that the credit for finding out how to make hard rubber “undoubtedly should go” to Hancock. But his patent was primarily for the vulcanization of soft elastic rubber, and it mentions this odd effect of hardening only as a peripheral comment, or an after thought. Hancock’s patent no. 11,135 from Mar 18, 1846 for making Caoutchouc, however, was the first use UK patent to use the word “vulcanizing” for the sulphur-and-heat process. William Brockedon, Hancock’s co-conspirator in other rubber research and co-patentee in another patent from 1846 was the one to propose the term “vulcanization” to Hancock, but the phrase “‘vulcanized’ india rubber” was first used elsewhere, in the Mechanics’ Magazine from February 1845. Meanwhile in America, Nelson Goodyear, Charles’s brother, also noticed that rubber turned hard when sufficient quantities of sulphur were added and sufficient heat applied for the appropriate length of time. But Nelson received his patent no. 8,075 only as late as May 6, 1851, thus leading Wolf to call him merely “one of the inventors of hard rubber”, even though in America he is credited as the inventor of hard rubber.
At first, they were searching for a way to make soft, pliable rubber, but along the way they discovered the process by which hard rubber was formed. If you add just a little sulphur to raw rubber and heat the mixture just enough, you get a stable and elastic rubber, but if you add more sulphur and heat it longer, the rubber turns to a hard, black substance that shrinks and expands very little with changes in temperature, absorbs almost no water, and has excellent machining properties. It is, in a word, the ideal substance from which to make pens. In spite of Charles Goodyear’s obsession with making almost everything out of rubber and hard rubber, he himself, in a book published in 1853 that lists “pen wipers, inkstands, penpoints, pencils and crayons” among the literally thousands of other suggested uses of rubber, did not yet include fountain pens among those uses. The problem was that, at the time, there weren’t many commercially produced fountain pens to speak of yet, so the use didn’t suggest itself, in a paradoxical circularity. By 1859, however, The Scientific American could list “a great variety of stationer’s goods . . . such as pens, pen-holders, pencils, paper folders, paper weights, rulers”, and in 1861, it repeated Goodyear’s very curious suggested use of hard rubber for “pens”, meaning pen points, or nibs, that would yield and flex when pressed to the paper during writing and would rival “the extreme freedom and ease of the quill”.
But all this was to change very quickly. Probably the first recorded use of rubber in any form for a fountain pen is A. Lyman and M. W. Baldwin’s American patent, issued September 19, 1848, for a pen with a flexible rubber sac for an ink reservoir in the barrel. Other early pens utilizing this type of filling system include W. R. Bertolacci’s 1852 English patent, H. R. McClelland’s 1855 American patent, and Walker Moseley’s 1859 English patent. B. R. Norton’s American patent in 1853 was probably the first to have specified that the pen’s barrel was to be made of “India rubber”. Newell A. Prince’s 1855 patent for a piston-filling fountain pen is said by Maginnis and Geyer to have been made of hard rubber. If this is so, it is among the first fountain pens of this type. The first Canadian patent for a fountain pen is W. M. Pattison’s November 9, 1859 patent, described as “An improved Fountain Pen-holder tube, called The Canadian Fountain Holder”. According to an advertisement in Harper’s Weekly, December 23, 1871, a pen going under the name “Prince’s Improved Fountain Pen” was being advertised with the slogan “The handle contains the ink” printed on the barrel of the pen pictured in the ad. Whether this pen company is related at all to Newell A. Prince is not made explicit in the ad, but what the ad does say is that the pen was made by John S. Purdy, a penmaker who went on to patent his own fountain pens in 1880, 1881, and 1883. Another pen of the day, the one made by George F. Hawkes, was also advertised in Harper’s in 1872 and 1873 with a slogan that was almost identical to the one in the Prince ad, a prosaic slogan that in both cases just stops short of saying, “The handle contains the inkwell”. The tantalizing aspect of the Prince ad is that it also contains a testimonial to the pen by Henry Ward Beecher that says in a less-pedestrian way, and one that restores the poetic play of words, that Prince’s pen “carries an inkstand in its bosom, an inkstand that cannot be upset, and has no outlet but through the pen”, meaning the nib. Beecher also says that he has been using Prince’s pen for several years already, so the pen was first made at least in the 1860s. Despite the predominance of hard rubber in this era, inventors continued to try to make pens with silver or gold barrels. Martin Tupper, a Canadian, wrote in his 1886 autobiography that he had invented “a pen to carry its own ink, . . . made in silver, a long hollow handle ending in a conical point”, which, like most fountain pens with metal bodies, probably didn’t function very well.
The Lawrences state that, “Goodyear became a major supplier of hard rubber pen components in the late 19th century”. It is not specified which Goodyear is being spoken of, but it is implied that it is Charles. Charles Goodyear did have his own company, but he died in 1860, and his patent for the vulcanization of rubber expired on June 15, 1865. Hugh Allen, in his book on the Goodyear Tire And Rubber Company, states that no one in the Goodyear family was in the rubber business at the time of the founding of the company in 1898, well into the age of the fountain pen. Robert Tefft, in his first article on hard rubber as a material for pens, states that the Goodyear Company has nothing to do with Charles Goodyear. The Goodyear company actually appropriated the family name long after Charles’s death, but as a way of “honoring the founder of the industry”, as Allen puts it. In light of all this, one can only guess that the company being referred to by the Lawrences is Nelson Goodyear’s company, since he had the patent for hard rubber, and certainly not Charles Goodyear’s company. Charles Goodyear mostly granted licenses to other firms to allow them to manufacture rubber products under his patent. Latterly, the Goodyear Tire And Rubber Co. also produced hard rubber parts.
Standardizing The Terms
Standardizing The Terms
The period from 1845 to 1870 was a crossover period, a sort of mixed-up, shook-up, uncertain time in which the terms were still undergoing standardization. In the United States patents, the words “metallic pen”, “pen holder”, “reservoir pen holder”, “fountain pen holder”, and “pen” were all used as synonyms for the word “fountain pen” in some instances, but in other instances they still referred to the things normally specified by those words.
At the same time, the literature in The Scientific American on fountain pen patents, which was still preoccupied with dipping no more and with the battle with the inkstand, attests to this crossover. In the March 20, 1852 issue it says,
Let us take into consideration the great amount of writing that is performed every day; . . . think of the number of times the hand of one quick pensman must travel from the sheet of paper to the ink-bottle, every day; and multiply the said number of times by the number of pensmen employed, and we shall find that an incalculable amount of time is lost by the mere dipping of thousands of pens, thousands of times, hourly, into dirty ink bottles.It all translates to lost hours of productivity. In May 5, 1855, it says, “When writing . . . , the ink flows out . . . and keeps up a supply to the pen, thus obviating the trouble of dip, dip, dipping into an ink bottle”, in January 15, 1856, “The holder is . . . an ink fountain for supplying ink. . . . A good fountain pen is very useful, both as regards its portable ink bottle quality, and also the saving of time to the pensman, in dispensing with continually dip, dip, dipping into the ink while writing”, and in March 22, 1856, “The penholder is made hollow, and serves as an inkstand”.
By August 10, 1878, The Scientific American was still saying that because a “pen [has] a hollow handle, in which a supply of ink is carried, . . . the necessity of an inkstand is thus avoided”. Later in 1878, it continued the battle with the inkstand when it said about fountain pens, “For long continued writing it is certainly a great convenience to take up one of these pens and be able to write page after page, for a whole day at a time without being obliged to lift the hand from the paper or resort to the inkstand, or change a pen [nib], or sharpen a pencil”. By the time the first successful fountain pens came about in the 1880s, the term “fountain pen”, without the hyphen, had become the standard spelling of the word, as attested by ads for the major fountain pens of the day in such magazines as Harper’s, Scientific American, Century, and Review of Reviews. A note in Notes & Queries on December 31, 1898, responding to a query about the archaisms used by Henry in his explication of the passage in Zechariah, defines the term “fountain-inkhorn”, but finishes off with, “as for the fountain pens, they are common enough now”. Cliff Lawrence’s 1977 book includes an illustration from the early 1900s that shows a cross-sectional view of a Waterman eyedropper-filled pen with all the parts named, and surprisingly as late as then, the interior of the pen’s barrel is still labelled the “ink well”.
Throughout this period, but earlier as well, the term “pen” sometimes referred to the nib, or the pen point, but also at other times to the whole instrument. When the word “nib”, or “neb”, first appeared, it usually took the plural form and referred to the two points of the pen created by the slit that separates them. Thomas Middleton in his Micro-Cynion of 1599, refers to “my pen’s two nibs”, and Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, in their 1611 play Roaring Girl, again use the word in the line “lawiers pens . . . have sharp nibs”. In 1840, the Penny Cyclopaedia still refers to the two points of a pen as “each nib”. Knight’s Dictionary says that “Pens have usually two nibs”, but as the quotation from Knight cited earlier shows, the word “nib” is at the same time being used, elsewhere in the same work, in its new, singular sense to mean the whole pen point. And by 1899, when Ratcliffe wrote the following note on “pens”, the terms had been stabilized, and the word “nib” had become the standard term for the pen point.
Quills as pens remained in use in some houses as the only writing tool up to a dozen to twenty years ago. . . . People used to ask for “a quill pen,” or “a quill,” when they wanted a pen, and both steel and quill were always called “pens,” buyers asking for fine or other “nibs” or “nebs.” Nowadays nearly all ask for “nibs” when they require pens. The word “pen” has almost dropped out of usage, except to express the pen and holder combined. Persons invariably ask for a box of “nibs,” appearing to lose sight of the fact that “nib” or “neb” is a point, and that the points of pens alone are not to be had. . . . Children only know a pen as holder and pen combined. They ask for “nibs” or “pen nibs,” and when asked if they do not mean “pens,” the reply is, “No! nibs!”The August 26, 1899 note in Notes & Queries, quoting from the 1680 pamphlet titled The Mischief Of Impositions, talks about a similar change from “ink-horns” to “ink-glasses”, that is, inkstands and ink bottles. Well, “if the late change from ink-horns to ink-glasses” and pens to nibs had but one thing to teach us it would be just how “frail and brittle” all language is.
The Capillary Feed
The Capillary Feed
Now, put these two discoveries together, the gold nib and the hard rubber barrel, and you have the recipe for a successful fountain pen. And with the coming of these two discoveries there was a veritable explosion in the number of fountain pen manufacturers. The Lawrences, in their Pen Guide, date the first Warren N. Lancaster fountain pen to 1855, and Andreas Lambrou states that Lancaster didn’t produce fountain pens until 1879, but Lancaster’s first patent dates to 1882. And although Paul Wirt’s first patent dates to 1882, by his own admission in court testimony in 1888, he didn’t produce and sell his first pens till 1885. John Holland produced his first fountain pens in 1859 according to the Lawrences, in 1869 according to Fischler and Schneider, and the 1880s according to Lambrou. What is known for sure is that John Holland got patents for a “pen” in 1868, a “pen holder” in 1871, a “writing pen”, a type of stylus point, in 1873, and a “fountain pen point” in 1878, among other patents, and he only got a patent for a “fountain pen” in 1879. In 1875, Duncan MacKinnon, a Canadian, invented and patented the first hard rubber stylographic pen, as the articles and patents reprinted in the Spring-Summer 1995 issue of The Pennant show. Shortly after, the A. T. Cross Company started making its own stylograph based on MacKinnon’s invention, a fact that even the A. T. Cross Company history written by Barbara Lambert had to acknowledge grudgingly. And although A. T. Cross held patents for fountain pens in the late 1870s, they were never put into production, and according to the advertisements found by the Lawrences, only in 1885 did Cross start producing its first fountain pens. Maginnis in his note in Notes & Queries writes that stylographic pens date “back to about 1878, when a serious attempt began to make the fountain pen a popular writing implement”. And Maginnis in his lecture series discusses thirty-three patents between the years 1855 and 1885, but these are just the highlights of the period. Schnell says that by 1883 “about a thousand patents on fountain pens had already been issued”. In fact, my own researches into the American patents for fountain pens yielded a number closer to two hundred and seventy, and even that number includes patents for machines for making pens, nibs, stylographic pens, inks, ink bottles, hard rubber, celluloid, and trademarks for fountain pens, nibs, and inks. But you get the gist of his meaning, despite the hyperbole, and even at only two hundred and seventy, it is still quite a flurry of activity.
The recipe for the fountain pen required some fine tuning, however. In spite of the explosion of pen makers, the pens themselves were still not very dependable, and consequently there was no explosion of pen buying as a vote of consumer confidence. In 1857 The Scientific American said, “The great objection of fountain pens generally is that they do not deliver the ink regularly and that they are very difficult to clean”. Dip pens, and even quills, were still preferred to fountain pens, but even as late as 1865 the complaint concerning dip pens, in an article in The Scientific American, was still that it was “annoying to be constantly interrupted in the current of thought by the necessity to replenish the pen with ink”. The article adds that many a text “begun in zeal and with brain overflowing, has degenerated into ‘bald, disjointed chat’, from the sputtering of a villainous pen”. It goes on to say,
Vigor of style and felicity of expression are often the result of a smooth-running, easy-working pen. . . . In dipping into the inkstand [many a poet] has put out his rush light. . . . Copyists, and, in fact, all persons who have much writing to do, find fountain pens useful for supplying ink continually to the pen, it being only necessary to fill the fountain once in a certain time, and the ink then flows out mechanically.The Lawrences state that in 1880 less than ten thousand dollars was invested in the entire fountain pen industry in America. The first pen to turn this around was Lewis Edson Waterman’s pen, patented in 1884, although he had already started making his first fountain pens in 1883. George S. Parker explains the problem when he writes,
The idea of a fountain pen was popular . . . , but the pens themselves were continually giving dissatisfaction, and the principle trouble was that there was no provision in them for a steady flow of air up into the ink chamber as the ink flowed out. The pens alternated between no flow of ink at all, when the air was trying to force its way up there, and too abundant a flow when it had forced its way up there in a lump, so to speak.One of the pens referred to by Parker was John Holland’s pen, a pen that Parker used to sell and repair, and whose faults inspired him to design a better feed, which he called “The Lucky Curve”. While such pens as the Holland pen were still full of ink, they would lapse into spells of not writing at all while the air flowed in periodically to replace the spent ink, but when they were nearly empty, they would disgorge their last supply of ink in a blob on the paper, as the surface tension of that last bubble of ink was broken and the air rushed into the ink chamber and displaced the remainder of the ink. Frank Holland’s pen was also one that encountered this problem, but he was misfortunate enough to have employed the opportunistic L. E. Waterman. He abandoned his pen company, and left it to Waterman to be the first to solve this problem with his three-fissure-feed patent of 1884. Actually, it is a misnomer to call the three notches in the feed “fissures”. It would be more correct to call them “kerfs”, which are slits or grooves or notches in a material made by cutting or sawing, and not “fissures”, which are partial splits or cracks or clefts in a material made by breaking or fracturing. But tradition and wide usage have settled, no matter whether it’s correct or not, on the word “fissure”. However, with the advent of that invention, pen sales skyrocketed. As a tribute to Waterman, Schnell, also a penmaker, says, “It is the merit of the particular invention that marks real progress. Waterman made a distinct advance in the art, and the profits he made were deservedly great”. By 1893, The Scientific American took fountain pens so much for granted that it said about them,
These articles have become so popular from their large use by all who have any writing to do in every department of business, and in all walks of life, as well as from the numberless unstinted endorsements of men prominent in the leading professions, that any detailed description would be superfluous. Fountain pens, for many years used almost exclusively by reporters and traveling men, have within a comparatively short period become almost indispensable to the business man, and to those whose avocations are of a literary character in any way. This is because these pens have of late been made so simple, clean, and thoroughly effective that one can now, with the least care, depend upon always having and conveniently carrying upon the person in good working condition, without danger of soiling the clothes or fingers therewith, the ink carried in the holder, and readily replenished, being sufficient to do a large amount of work. In consequence, also, of this largely increased use, and of the improvements introduced in the manufacture, the prices of this class of pens have been greatly reduced.By the 1890s, most pen companies had achieved what The Scientific American said in 1896 about just one specific pen, a pen that was “designed to write to the last drop of ink, without liability to leak”, thus also “enabling the pen to be carried point down in the pocket with absolute safety”. The April 6, 1907 ad in The Scientific American for the Paul E. Wirt Fountain Pen uses the line “Don’t cry over spilled-ink”, implying that the Wirt Pen will not spill any, and you will have, it goes on to say, “No more ink troubles. No more soiled fingers”. The Waterman’s fountain pen ad in Maclean’s Magazine for June 21, 1921, says,
We, with our modern conveniences, must admire [the prolific writers of the past] the more for the difficulties they had to overcome. Think what it would have meant to such a prolific writer as Dickens, for instance, to have possessed a Waterman’s Ideal Fountain Pen. How he would have revelled in the steady flow of ink, the smoothness of the golden pen-point, the easy freedom of writing, instead of the rough scratching of quill, and the constant distraction of dipping in the ink-bottle. A pen cannot make one a writer, but a Waterman’s Ideal fountain Pen can and does make writing easy, convenient, smooth and free of the slavery of the ink-well.The August 1924 ad for Waterman’s pens in The Bookman vituperated the inkwell with,
Why be tied to an inkwell–that voracious, insatiable receptacle for hair, dust and dirt; time-waster, temper provoker, arch enemy of prolific writer!!And the Parker Duofold Fountain Pen ad in The Saturday Evening Post, November 15, 1924, could still use the line, “To make rugs safe from spilly inkwells put a Duofold in the home desk”. Even as late as March 10, 1928, the Parker ad in the Saturday Evening Post could claim for its “Duofold” pen that,
Waterman’s brings to its owner freedom from the thraldom of the inkwell. It enables him to write just when he likes, just where he likes, indoors, outdoors, during the journey by motorcar, railway, steamship, aeroplane, by the babbling brook, the sandy seashore.
Treasured from the moment of its adoption it becomes, in time, part and parcel of himself, fitting in with every mood, as indispensable as the paper on which he writes.
It clears the Track for writing!It even inspired James Joyce in the late 1930s to pen the line, “And he pipettishly bespilled himself from his founding pen as illspent from inkinghorn”.
Now thoughts flow through a Parker Duofold more freely than ever in the past. Now Parker Pressureless Touch, combined with unfailing action, relieves the mind of all the strain of writing–all the ragging interruptions caused by ordinary writing tools.
Now your thoughts are always of the subject of your writing, never of the pen. Learn what this means to creative thinking.
With the problem of the capillary feed solved, there were only a few more details to be taken care of in order to achieve the modern look of the fountain pen. In 1867 The Scientific American said, “Much of the annoyance of the fountain pen, which has prevented them from being generally adopted, has arisen from the difficulty of replenishing the fountain and of ensuring a regular flow of ink to the pen nibs”. L. E. Waterman had taken care of the latter problem, that of “ensuring the regular flow of ink”, but the former problem was still outstanding, that of “replenishing the fountain”, its “inkhorn”, its “bosom”. Most of the pens from the period between the 1850s and the early 1900s were of the type that were filled with an eye dropper, so that an external device was required to fill the pens. Also, those pens tended to leak at the joint where they screwed apart to allow them to be filled. Previous to the solution of this problem, The Scientific American resorted to publishing an article, in 1883, giving “a remedy for leaky pens”. It stated that “no inventor seems to have succeeded thus far in making a joint which will prevent soiling the fingers with ink”, and suggested that some wax be rubbed onto the joint and melted with an open flame to allow it to run into the seam to secure a tight seal. In the earlier metal pens the problem was even worse, since, as Tefft states, “because of the low co-efficient of friction of metals, fabrication of an ink-tight joint was nearly impossible”. The modern ideal is a pen that is clean and self-contained, that is, one that has no seams and joints through which to leak, and to that end it must also be self-filling. The first dependable self-filling pen, according to the Lawrences, was the Post pen in 1900, a piston-filling pen. The piston-filling mechanism first appeared in the early 1800s and was used throughout the century, but the Post was merely the first successful piston filler in America. Many German pen companies made the piston-filling mechanism the mainstay of their business in the 1920s and thereafter.
The most successful solution to the problem, however, was the use of a flexible rubber sac or bladder to hold the ink supply, with a mechanism by which the sac could be manipulated to fill and empty it. Maginnis lists eighteen English patents between 1859 and 1900 that employed rubber-sac ink reservoirs, most of them unsuccessful commercially. A similar proportion of American patents also utilized a rubber sac, but again none of them were completely dependable. The first commercially successful pen to make use of the rubber sac was Conklin’s cumbersome crescent-filler, patented in 1901. The second was the A. A. Waterman’s 1902 use of Moseley’s expired 1859 patent for a twist-filling mechanism. In 1903 J. Barnes was issued a patent in the United States for a lever-filling system that, as Haury and Lacroux state, did not function very well. Parker also came out with its own ugly and ungainly version of the self-filler, the 1905 “click filler”. But the biggest step forward was taken by Walter A. Sheaffer’s lever-filler, designed in 1907 and patented in 1908. He did not, however, start production until 1912, and sales did not take off until he started advertising nationally in September 1914. After this, most other companies came out with their own version of the lever-filler. Waterman’s lever-filler was introduced in 1913 after it bought Barnes’s old 1903 patent and improved upon it. Parker came out with its own unique self-filling mechanism utilizing a rubber sac, the button filler, first sold in March 1914. Although the original patent dates to November 1905, it was not a Parker origination, but was purchased by Parker later on. It is an ingenious variation on the self-filling method that utilizes a rubber sac, a sleek and elegant solution to the problem.
The Final Touches
The Final Touches
There are two final details of provenance to be looked at. The earliest fountain pens resembled dip-pens and desk pens in that they had no clip to attach the pen to a pocket. With their long, tapering ends, they were even shaped like dip pens, but dip pens with a reservoir and a cap. They were definitely intended to be carried in the pocket, however, and many companies came out with slip-on clips and carrying cases and pen pockets just for this purpose. The real solution was to manufacture the pen with its own attached clip. The clip actually served two purposes. First of all, it secured the pen in an upright position in a pocket and kept it from falling out, and second, but just as important, it stopped the pen from rolling off a desk. In 1905 the Waterman’s Pen Company was the first to introduce a clip that was riveted to the cap, and the other pen companies soon followed with other methods of attaching clip to cap.
The other detail is the use of materials other than hard rubber to make the pen barrel and cap. The material of choice was hard rubber, used almost exclusively to make pens from 1855 to 1924. At that point celluloid displaced hard rubber as the material of choice because of its strength and lightness, but mostly because of the greater range of colors. Hard rubber came in three basic colors, black, red, and black and red mixed together in a mottled or striated pattern. Celluloid has only one major drawback, its extreme flammability. Accept for the addition of a small amount of a few other chemicals, it is, after all, basically nitrate cellulose, or guncotton, which by itself will explode even in an oxygen-free atmosphere, because the molecule has its own internal supply of oxygen. The other chemicals added to the nitrate cellulose act as buffering agents that make it less explosive and less brittle. It will still burn furiously, but will not explode. Older people have told me that when they were children, they would sneak up on someone’s pen with a magnifying glass, train the focal point of the glass on the pen, and set it spectacularly on fire. Celluloid was the material motion picture films were made of, and it was responsible for most of the theater fires between 1900 and 1950. Celluloid, or nitrate cellulose, was patented as early as 1868, and it was used to make dip-pen holders, according to Nickell, but according to an article by Chris Odgers in Pen World, it wasn’t utilized for fountain pens until Frank LeBoeuf got a patent in 1919 that specified that the pen was to be to be made of celluloid. These were probably the first fountain pens to be made of celluloid. The material, however, did not catch on universally until Sheaffer made his first jade green pen in 1924. Parker followed suit in 1926 with a red celluloid pen that imitated the color of red hard rubber, which itself was the color of Chinese red lacquer. Most of the colors were meant to imitate semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli, jade, pearl inlaid in ebony, agate, onyx, and marble, and other precious substances such as red lacquer, and Mandarin yellow pottery glaze. Other substances such as Bakelite and casein plastic also were used, but they never caught on, either because of machining difficulties, or else severe problems with water absorption. In the late 1930s and the 1940s, still other plastics were developed to replace celluloid, which was put to other uses during World War II.
Maginnis says at the very beginning of his Cantor Lectures, “There does not appear to exist, except on the shelves of the Patent Office, any systematic record of what has been done to produce the elegant and perfect writing instrument of today, known as the ‘Fountain Pen’”. Maginnis goes on to list the major British and American patents for fountain pens. Georges Sénéchal produced a similar list in 1911 citing only French patents. Haury and Lacroux state that “the Germans”, “the Italians”, and “others” also wrote up similar lists, but they go on to say, “Nevertheless a serious, careful study of these first attempts remains to be undertaken”. While looking at the genealogy of the fountain pen in the American patents for fountain pens from the period 1844 to 1957, I myself noticed a definite pattern of coincidence. There were certain surges in the numbers of patents issued in certain periods, flurries of activity that clustered around and coincided with the major discoveries. The first surge came right after the introduction of hard rubber, and shortly after the iridium-tipped gold nib had been adopted. Numbers dropped to zero during the Civil War, but soared a second time with the arrival of the stylograph. The third surge had two peaks, one that coincided with Waterman’s first two patents for pens with improved capillary feeds, and another peak that coincided with Parker’s first five patents, including the patent for the “Lucky Curve” feed. And the fourth surge coincided with the introduction of both the self-filling pen and the safety pocket clip. It would be interesting to see whether these observations would be confirmed by, and the same patterns repeated in, the fountain pen patents issued in the United Kingdom and other European and Asian countries.
It is arguable whether it is hard rubber alone that has made the fountain pen possible, as Tefft seems to imply, for with the discovery of hard rubber, the pen industry simply takes off. That discovery appears to be of sole importance, however, only because it is the last hurdle to jump. But the iridium-tipped gold nib is also a necessity, if smoothness of writing and longevity of the pen point are to be achieved. The Lawrences claim that it is these two inventions together that provide “the material technology for the fountain pen’s development”. Haury and Lacroux state that, “In a fountain pen, two things are of critical importance: the nib and the feed system”. Combine what the Lawrences say with what Haury and Lacroux say, and you now get three important inventions. Add to these three a self-filling mechanism, a clip, and a colorful range of plastics, and you have, in toto, the modern fountain pen. And it has stayed basically the same to this day, except for various minor stylistic changes. But undoubtedly, a fountain does make the pen a lot mightier. New fountain pen designs are often a return to the past, or variations on previous successes, but none of these designs ever resorts to dipping so far into the past that it has to revert to a fountless pen.
A completely cursive script is a modern achievement. The reason that a running cursive hand wasn’t developed until modern times was that it wasn’t an achievable imperative, and with a pen that still required constant dipping, there was no incentive to be completely cursive in any case. Such a script didn’t develop until the age of the fountain pen, that is, a time with a pen that had a continuous supply of ink at hand. Only with a fountain pen can the “quickscribbler” write without fear of running out of ink, and only with a fountain pen is the opportunity afforded for the hand to fly across the page uninterruptedly, almost as trippingly as words on the tongue. The fountain pen allows a word in the hand to be worth as much as a word in the mouth, and the act of writing to be as fluent as the act of speaking, since both spring from the same centers of the brain. Not only is the pen “the tongue of the mind”, but the tongue is also “the pen of a ready writer”. This whole piece was written with a fountain pen. Now, can you hear it speak?
I hope that this concatenation of notes and quotes and archaic expressions was not too wearying, and that you do not esteem me as an “insufficiently malestimated notesnatcher”, a sham pensmith. And I hope that you do not think that this work has inkhornized you with too many inkhorn terms, and goosed you with a “goose-pen”. For as Edward H. Knight said in the preface to his Dictionary, “Without deviating into irrelevancy, the author has sometimes become ‘A snapper-up of unconsidered trifles’ worthy of a more careful estimate”. And “since feeling is first” when it comes to choosing what to write and what to write with, who cares about the original context and “syntax of things”?
“So why, pray, sign anything, as long as every word, letter, penstroke, paperspace is a perfect signature of its own? A true friend is known much more easily, and better into the bargain, by his personal touch”, the touch of his ‘hand’, the ductus of his handwriting. So, now, abide these three, pen, ink, and writing, but the greatest of these is writing. And what comes after all the words are written? A real bombshell–Reading! and then more writing.