June 13, 2014

Alan Turing’s Fountain Pen

  , and fingerprint.


        Alan Turing was the mathematician, cryptologist, and computational specialist who in 1936 created the concept of a computer in a thought experiment that he called a “universal machine”, now known as a “Turing machine”.  He also cracked the German’s Enigma code, and as Larry Kramer’s HBO movie and play The Normal Heart puts it, he was “responsible for [the Allies] winning the Second World War”.
        But while reading Andrew Hodges’s biography of Turing, Alan Turing: The Enigma (The Centenary Edition), partially available on Google Books as
a preview edition, my sister found the quote below from a letter that Turing wrote when he was 11 years old, and knowing of my interest in pens, she sent the reference on to me.  So his young, inventive mind was also briefly turned toward inventing his own fountain pen.  Too bad the “diagram” in his youthful letter is not [see third addendum] reproduced, but from the description in the letter, it sounds like a bulb filler such as the one in this patent, but in the patent, you “scweeze” the “squishy end” marked “A”.
And the bulb filler is almost a precursor to the squeezac.  Not bad for a kid of eleven.

George Kovalenko.


Addendum, Nov 28, 2014.
        Also take a look at this exchange on about the “Research Fountain Pen”, which he was given as a present on his 12th birthday.  It is also referred to on pp. 37, 67, and 137 in the above-mentioned book.

Addendum, Dec 1, 2014.
        Stephen Hull just sent me the following references.  A few of these Research Fountain Pens showed up a few years ago at the Midland Pen Show in the UK.  They were exhibited on the table of the Birmingham Pen Trades Heritage Association by Larry Hanks and may now be on view in the BPTHA’s  “Pen Room”.  And for those of you who still read books and magazines, Larry also wrote a 3-page article about the Research pens in the Writing Equipment Society Journal, no. 76, Summer 2006.

Addendum, May 23, 2016.
        Stefano Rodighiero in Bologna just sent me the link to a digital image of the letter with the
crude diagram of the pen, included as part of the Turing Digital Archive.  Another thing that is not reproduced in the transcription of the letter is the fact that the handwritten letter is dated as “Easter, April 1”, but then the word “Easter” is scratched out and the parenthetic phrase “(fools day)” is written beneath it.  So I wonder whether the pen and letter were an April Fool’s prank, or whether he was amusing himself with his invention to relieve the boredom on a holiday weekend.  Also not reproduced is the varying darkness of the ink.  The ink is at times thick and dark and saturated, especially on page 2, and at other times thin and grey and watery, on page 1, so he was having trouble with the feed in his pen.  And because the ink is watery at times, it helps to reveal the type of nib that he was using.  It was a fine, flexible, sharp nib, as evidenced by the sharply scored lines on the borders of the broad, wishy-washy, grey down-strokes.  It’s the dead-giveaway signature of a flexible fine point, and it’s quite possibly a steel nib intended for a dip pen rather than for a fountain pen.  The sharp points spread under pressure and score the surface of the paper and make it absorb more ink.  See Albert S. Osborn’s Questioned Documents (1929), a book on forensic handwriting analysis.  And because he was a young kid who was either impatient, or inexperienced with the long drying time of the wet ink, he smeared some of the letters and got ink on his fingers, and left at least one clear fingerprint! and a few indistinct smudges.  That’s what a handwritten letter, complete with smudges and a fingerprint, does.  It makes it more personal.

Addendum, Apr 7, 2020.
And here’s a tasteful tribute pen, a
Limited Edition fountain pen.

Addendum, May 27, 2021.
And here’s a 1948 letter by
Stephen Hawking as a child.