Fountain pen

From Academic Kids

A fountain pen is a writing instrument, more specifically a pen, that contains a reservoir of liquid ink composed primarily of water. The ink is held in the reservoir by air pressure until needed, at which time it is fed to a nib through a "feed" via a combination of gravity and capillary action. Refilling ink either involves replacing an ink cartridge, filling the pen with an eyedropper, or using one of a variety of internal mechanisms to suck ink from a bottle. Older pens squeezed and released a rubber sack to create the suction needed. Most modern pens use a screw and piston to create the vacuum.

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These Parker Duofolds from the 1920s used the Lucky Curve feed system and self-filled using a "button filler". They were quite long; nearly 7 inches long when posted.


The earliest historical record of a reservoir pen dates to the 10th century but it is likely that attempts at a fountain pen go back much further into the past. The earliest surviving reservoir pens date to the 18th century. Progress in developing a reliable pen was slow, however, into the mid-19th century. That slow pace of progress was due to a very imperfect understanding of the role that air pressure played in the operation of the pens and because most inks were highly corrosive and full of sedimentary inclusions. Starting in the 1850's there was a steadily accelerating stream of fountain pen patents and pens in production. It was only after three key inventions were in place, however, that the fountain pen became a widely popular writing instrument. Those inventions were the iridium-tipped gold nib, hard rubber, and free-flowing ink.

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M. Klein and Henry W. Wynne received US patent #68445 in 1867 for an ink chamber and delivery system in the handle of the fountain pen.

The first fountain pens making use of all these key ingredients appeared in the 1850s. In the 1870s Duncan MacKinnon, a Canadian living in New York City, and Alonzo T. Cross of Providence, Rhode Island created stylographic pens with a hollow, tubular nib and a wire acting as a valve. Stylographic pens are now used mostly for drafting and technical drawing but were very popular in the decade beginning in 1875. it was in the 1880s that the era of the mass-produced fountain pen finally began. The dominant American producers in this pioneer era were Waterman and Wirt, based in New York City and Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, respectively with George S. Parker of Janesville, Wisconsin lagging only a little behind. Waterman soon outstripped Wirt and Parker, along with the many companies that sprang up to fill the new and growing fountain pen market, and remained the market leader up until the early 1920s.

At this time fountain pens were almost universally filled by unscrewing a portion of the hollow barrel or holder and inserting the ink by means of an eyedropper. This was a slow and messy system. Additionally, fountain pens tended to leak inside their caps and at the joint where the barrel opened for filling. Now that the materials problems had been overcome and the flow of ink while writing had been regulated, the next problems to be solved were the creation of a simple, convenient self-filler and the problem of leakage. Roy Conklin of Toledo, Ohio patented the first practical self-filler in 1899 but it was not until Walter A. Sheaffer of Ft. Madison, Iowa began marketing a simple lever filler in 1908 that the self-contained filling mechanism began to supplant the eyedropper.

Meanwhile many inventors turned their attention to the problem of leakage. Many of the earliest solutions to this problem came in the form of a "safety" pen with a retractible point that allowed the ink reservoir to be stoppered like a bottle. The most successful of these came from F.C. Brown of the Caw's Pen and Ink Co. and from Morris W. Moore of Boston. In 1907 Waterman began marketing a safety pen of its own that soon became the most widely distributed such pen. Subsequent inventions such as the inner cap that sealed the nib away from the barrel and feeds with a large surface area solved the leakage problem.

In Europe, German Günther Wagner's office supplies house (started in 1871), introduced the Pelikan pen in 1929, based upon the acquisition of patents for solid-ink fountain pens from the factory of Slavoljub Penkala from Croatia (patented 1907, in mass production since 1911), and the patent of the Hungarian Theodor Kovacs for the modern piston filler by 1925.

The decades that followed saw many technological innovations in the manufacture of fountain pens. Celluloid gradually replaced hard rubber, which enabled production in a much wider range of colors and designs. At the same time, manufacturers experimented with new filling systems. The inter-war period saw the introduction of some of the most notable models, such as the Parker Duofold and Vacumatic, Sheaffer's Lifetime Balance series, and the Pelikan 100.

During the 1940s and 1950s, fountain pens retained their dominance: early ballpoint pens were expensive, prone to leaks and had irregular inkflow, while the fountain pen continued to benefit from the combination of mass production and craftsmanship. This period saw the launch of innovative models such as the Parker 51, the Sheaffer Snorkel and the Eversharp Skyline, while the Esterbrook J series of lever-fill models with interchangeable steel nibs offered inexpensive reliability to the masses.

By the 1960s, refinements in ballpoint pen production gradually ensured its dominance over the fountain pen for casual use. Although cartridge-filler fountain pens are still in common use in France and Germany, particularly among schoolchildren, modern manufacturers (especially Montblanc) now market the fountain pen as a collectible or a status symbol, rather than an everyday writer.

Current fountain pen manufacturers include Cross, Montblanc, Parker, Pelikan, Namiki/Pilot, Rotring, Sheaffer, Hero (from China) and Waterman. Practically all fountain pen companies offer ink alongside their pens, but companies exclusively producing inks (mostly for fountain pens) exist, including Private Reserve, Nathan Tardif's Noodler's Ink, Diamine and J. Herbin. Sometimes manufacturer of fountain pens sells some other manufacturer's ink under their brand name; For example fountain pen ink of A.T. Cross is actually made by Pelikan and fountain pen inks of Bexley are actually made by Private Reserve and fountain pen inks of Yard-o-Led are actually made by Diamine. It is speculated, that J. Herbin is actual manufacturer of fountain pen inks of Omas. Pilot is one of only a few companies making disposable fountain pens (under name Varsity and Vpen). Pilot also makes higher-end pens under brand name Namiki, including the "Vanishing Point", where the nib retracts like a that of a ballpoint.

Using fountain pens

Together with the mass-manufactured pencil and the introduction of cheap wood-based paper, the fountain pen was responsible for a major transformation in writing and in the nature of paperwork during the 19th century. They gave birth to the precursor of the modern office, which would only come about at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th with the gradual introduction of the typewriter and early duplicating machines.

The fountain pen, and, to a lesser extent, the pencil, replaced the relatively hard-to-use combination of the dip pen, blotter, and sand tray employed till then for writing. Using a dip pen was in fact a complex and often frustrating exercise due to the irregular flow of ink from the nib and other factors. In a sense, the introduction of the fountain pen can be compared to the advent of the early command line word processor and the dot matrix printer which appeared before graphic word processing software and the laser printer.

Fountain pens are widely regarded to be the best tools for writing or drawing with ink on paper. However, they can be more expensive, harder to maintain, and more fragile than a ballpoint pen. In addition, they cannot be used with the various oil- and particle-based inks (such as India ink) prized by artists, as can a dip pen, reed, or quill.

That said, fountain pens require less hand pressure when writing than either ballpoint or rollerball pens. This allows for longer, more comfortable writing sessions with less hand fatigue. And fountain pen inks come in a far wider selection of colors than those available for ballpoint or rollerball pens, providing a nearly unlimited choice of colors for writing.


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Fountain pen nib labeled "IRIDIUM POINT GERMANY"

The nib of the fountain pen is usually made of stainless steel or gold. Gold nibs are tipped with a hard, wear-resistant alloy that typically utilizes metals from the platinum group. Tipping material is often called "iridium", even though hardly any penmakers still use that metal in their tipping alloys. Steel nibs may also have harder tips; those with steel points will wear more rapidly due to abrasion by the paper.

The nib usually has one slit cut down its center, to convey the ink down the nib by capillary action, as well as a "breather hole" of varying shape to promote the exchange of air for ink in the pen's reservoir. The whole nib narrows to a point where the ink is transferred to the paper. Broad calligraphy pens may have several slits in the nib to increase ink flow and help distribute it evenly across the broad point. Nibs divided into three 'tines' are commonly known as 'music' nibs, as their broad line is suited for writing musical scores.

Although the most common nibs end in a round point of various sizes (fine, medium, broad), other nib shapes are available. Examples of this are oblique, reverse oblique, stub and italic.

Fountain pens dating from the first half of the 20th century are more likely to have flexible nibs, suited to the favored handwriting styles of the period. By the 1940s, writing preferences had shifted towards stiffer nibs that could withstand the greater pressure required for writing through copy paper to create duplicate documents.

Filling Mechanisms

The earliest fountain pens were all eyedropper fillers - that is, the pen was essentially an empty reservoir which one would fill with an eyedropper. This was a relatively complicated process and could give way to leakage in lower-end pens. However, the absence of complicated mechanisms meant that this system could hold much more ink than a pen of comparable size. As a result, eyedropper pens are sometimes still manufactured today but have been largely replaced by more convenient methods. For example model Recife Crystal is eyedropper. Fountain pens of David Oscarson can be used as eyedropper and with cartridges and converter.

After the eyedropper filler came a "second generation" of fillers, almost all involving pen sacs. The sacs, generally consisting of latex rubber (but nowadays sometimes made of silicone), were flexible containers within the pen that would be compressed and released to drive out and suck in whatever the user desired. The downside of these was that they would require more space than eyedropper fillers, and were prone to hardening as they aged.

The Conklin crescent filler, introduced c. 1901, was one of the first mass-produced self-filling pen designs. The crescent filling system employs an arch-shaped crescent attached to a rigid metal pressure bar, with the crescent portion protruding from the pen through a slot and the pressure bar inside the barrel. A second component, a C-shaped hard rubber ring, is located between the crescent and the barrel. Ordinarily, the ring blocks the crescent from pushing down. However, when it comes time to fill the pen, one simply turns the ring around the barrel until the crescent matches up to the hole in the ring, allowing one to push down the crescent and squeeze the internal pen sac.

Following the crescent filler came a series of systems of increasing complexity, reaching their apogee in the Sheaffer Touchdown and Snorkel systems. With the introduction of cartridge pens by Waterman-Jif, though, many of these systems were phased out in favour of convenience (but reduced capacity). Today, most pens either utilise piston-fills or cartridges, although the latter can usually be converted to piston-fill with the use of a convertor.

The piston filler, first introduced in the original Pelikan of 1929 (although the concept was from Croatia), was somewhat of an anomaly in an age of sac-filling pens. The idea was a simple one: merely twist a knob at the end of the pen, and an internal piston will drive up and down the barrel, forcing ink out or in. While the capacity of these pens was not comparable to some of the better sac systems, and certainly not the eyedropper pen, they offered convenience only second to the cartridge. The reason for their lacklustre capacities is the size of the piston unit. In order to effectively drive the whole way down the barrel, some of the earlier models had to devote as much as half of the pen length to a complicated system. The advent of telescoping pistons has in some respects remedied this, but piston fillers are still sometimes foregone today in favour of older methods.


Most European fountain pen brands (for example Caran d'Ache, Faber-Castell, Dupont, Montegrappa, Stipula, Yard-O-Led, Pelikan, Waterman, Montblanc, Monteverde, Delta and Rotring) and some pen brands of other continents (for example Bexley, Retro51, Tombow and Acura) use so called "international cartridges" (AKA "european cartridges" or "standard cartridges" or "universal cartridges"), in short or long sizes, or both. It is to some extent a standard, so international cartridges of any manufacturer can be used in most fountain pens that accepts international cartridges. Also, converters that are meant to replace international cartridges can be used in most fountain pens that accept international cartridges. Some very compact fountain pens (for example Waterman Ici et La and Monteverde Diva) accept only short international cartridges. Converters can not be used in them (except for so-called mini-converters by Monteverde).

Many fountain pen manufacturers have at various times developed their own proprietary cartridges, for example Parker, Lamy, Sheaffer, Cross, and Namiki. Fountain pens from Aurora, Hero, Duke and Uranus accept the same cartridges and converters that Parker uses and vice versa. Corresponding converters to be used instead of such proprietary cartridges are usually made by the same company that made the fountain pen itself. Some very compact fountain pens accept only proprietary cartridges made by the same company that made that pen, for example Sheaffer Agio Compact and Sheaffer Prelude Compact. It is not possible to use converter in them at all. In such pens the only practical way to use another brand of ink is to fill empty cartridges with bottled ink using a syringe.

Fountain pens as works of art

Fountain pens are often prized as works of art. Ornate pens are sometimes made of precious metals and jewels; others are inlaid with lacquer designs in a process known as maki-e. An avid community of pen enthusiasts collect and use antique and modern pens and also collect and exchange information about old and modern inks, ink bottles, and inkwells. Collectors often tend to prize being able to actually use the antiques, instead of merely placing them under glass for show.

This is not to say that all fountain pens are so called "expensive collectors' items" (you can, of course, collect anything), however; good quality steel pens are available cheaply, particularly in Europe, and there are even some "disposable" fountain pens available.

External links

fr:Stylo-plume it:Penna stilografica he:עט נובע ja:万年筆 zh:鋼筆


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