Fountain pen lovers are a weird lot. Give one an Extra Fine nib in place of his / her preferred Fine and it can be reason enough for a virtually impossible to resolve impasse. Any group of such hardcore lovers will debate (sometimes such debates reaching the stage where pens are drawn and aimed for the opponent’s jugular) if one only uses the terms “resin”, “precious resin” and “plastic” to mean the same thing. Apparently “insignificant” things (insignificant to the philistines, the Saracens that is) like the time it takes for a particular ink to dry; or the impact of “posting” on the linguistic callisthenics of wordsmiths, will give rise to extreme emotions that have been known to take even menacing forms.
But, filling systems? Somehow, filling systems do not generate such inflamed passions in the aficionados. Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to slip in the notion that life-long friendships have not shattered over the choice of filling systems, or, perish the thought, that they don’t matter. All I am trying to say is that in general, the ink strained souls have been seen to be less stringent about their individual preferences as far as filling systems go.
Now, this is a tad bit difficult to explain, as the history of the fountain pen evolution is, to a very great extent, the history of the evolution of the filling systems. As a matter of fact, it will not be an exaggeration to say that a good part of the first half of the last century (give or take a few decades on either side) was, in fact, an intense battle between the main manufacturers to unveil the most convenient, hassle, mess and stain-free way to fill their pens! Not really rocket science, for once the nib had its breather hole and the feed had its channels, pen companies had little else to focus their unbridled attention in their quest for excellence.
When we see the “modern” fountain pens with their almost de rigueur converter and cartridge fillers (some with an O-ring that allow them barrels to be used as eye-dropper fillers, thereby providing the assemblers / manufacturers the leverage to call them 3-in-I systems) one feels a bit depressed, for, uniformity is anathema to the rebel hearts of fountain pen pushers – after all, many of us did pick up the fountain pen as a rebellion against the society’s expectation that we will conform and fall in line.
Besides, look at the mindboggling array of filling systems that were invented, patented, prototyped and offered. Some were ingenuity incarnate, some plain “why didn’t I think of it” simple, while some (okay, most) clever attempts to circumvent the patent rights. As some filling systems overlapped in terms of their invention and or commercial appearance, I will try to refrain from getting into the exercise of listing them chronologically (yes, I admit that my knowledge is on shaky ground here). I am also mighty confused about many of the terms that were used back then to exploit the proprietary inventions by their respective owners and will therefore restrict to “following” the leader – Richard Binder, in this case, the credit of compiling the following list of filling systems goes to whom.
Accordion, Bulb, Cartridge / Converter, Crescent, Hatchet, Lever, Piston, Servo, Spoon, Touchdown, Aero-metic, Button, Chilton (Suction), Dunn, Hump, Leverless, Plunger, Sleeve / Thumb, Squeeze bar, Twist, Blow, Capillary, Coin, Eyedropper, Ink-vue, Matchstick, Saddle, Snorkel, Syringe, Vacumatic.
Yes, there are thirty names in the list. I would also like to confess upfront that I am no technical person and some of the filling systems, at least to me, look very similar to others. Why they have made it to the list is beyond my comprehension but I would still not stick my neck out and err on the wrong side of ignorance.
Besides, I have a different agenda for coming this far – from the simple ink-in-the-barrel eyedropper fillers to the stunningly complex Snorkel (1952-59). Why is it that even after seven decades of the Snorkel making its appearance, we in India are stuck with our eyedropper fillers? Why the overwhelming dependence on the converter and cartridge? Whatever happened to the very robust India made piston fillers of yore (Wality Airmail 69 P – Kiwi pens still sells them – to cite just one example)?
Well, among a few others, Click still makes them (called “Tulip”, trust me they are damn good pens). Kanwrite’s heritage too is another fine example of what we can do. And Fosfor is known to make a variety of fillers – all custom made. Point is, the total market is just a fraction. There are unbranded piston fillers available in the South and most OEM manufacturers are known to do pretty decent jobs for their export orders, but, alas, there are precious few that you can buy off the shelf in India.
While none of the manufacturers I talked to wants to be quoted, the consensus point is simple – filling systems evolved out of a need to manufacture the pen that would neither leak, nor be messy to fill, apart from having a decent ink carrying capacity. The cartridge-converter provides the best possible answer in general. Besides, neither are fountain pens as popular as they were, nor are the entities big enough these days to justify the competitive runs that had marked the heydays. And finally, while it is again in vogue to tinker with exotic filling systems, it is restricted mainly to some globally established brands who can command prices that we Indian manufacturers cannot even dream of. Hence the ubiquitous cigar shape, the Duofold copy and the imported from “dushman” cartridge/ converters!
Besides, brick and mortar fountain pen making can be extremely profitable in India as it is, enough to ensure that innovation is restricted to sourcing the right components at the cheapest price. Why bother, when it is a democracy after all and you deserve the pens that you choose?