What is a fountain pen?
A Fountain pen is a hollow tube (barrel)closed on one end with a nib affixed on the other. The barrel works as an internal reservoir which is filled with liquid ink. The pen draws ink from the reservoir through a feed to the nib and deposits it on paper via a combination of gravity and capillary action. At its most basic form, the barrel is filled with ink manually, either through an eye dropper or a syringe though there are a number of filling systems that facilitate the filling of ink directly through the nib incorporating some form of suction or the by the creation of a vacuum.
The earliest writing instruments were reeds and quills which had evolved into dip pens – sticks with metal nibs attached on one end. It was just one step in terms of evolutionary history for the stick to be hollowed up and filled with ink, thereby giving birth to the earliest fountain pens, though the journey was not as simple as it sounds.
History and Origin of the Fountain Pen
The first fountain pen was created when the Fatimid caliph Al-Mu’izzli-Din Allah (in Arab Egypt) demanded a pen that would not stain his hands or clothes. Except that the pen held ink in a reservoir, allowing it to be held upside-down without leaking, precious little is known about it.
The search for the first fountain pen takes us next to Renaissance Europe, where it is surmised that artist, polymath Leonardo Da Vinci had used a fountain pen for his writing and sketching in his journals. As a matter of fact, his journals contain drawings with cross-sections of what looks like a reservoir pen though the actual pen has not been found. Prototypes based on his drawings are known to have been made, even as recently as in 2010-11.
The seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries witnessed a number of fountain pens – some no more than glorified quills with reservoirs, though commercial success was elusive, primarily because of a faulty understanding of the importance of air pressure on the flow of ink. The highly corrosive nature of iron gall ink was also an underlying reason as was the sediment such ink routinely deposited.
The first English patent for a fountain pen was issued in May 1809 to Frederick Fölsch. John Scheffer’s patent a full decade later in 1819 was the first design to see commercial success, while mention must also be made of John Jacob Parker’s, self-filler with a screw-operated pistonpatented in 1832. In the meantime, in 1828, Josiah Mason introduced a cheap and efficient slip-in nib in Birmingham, which led to the city becoming the center of the global pen trade with the mass manufacture of cheap and robust steel nibs.
The process of patenting was continuing on both sides of the Atlantic though it would be some time and after three key inventions fell into place, that what we now know as the fountain pen, would take its final shape – the use of hard rubber for the body, free flowing ink and a tipped (often iridium) gold nib.
The era of mass-produced fountain pens began in real earnest in the 1880s and was dominated by American producers, with Waterman and Writ being the pioneers. However, preceding it was a brief span of time when the stylographic pens (characterized by a hollow tubular nib and a wire acting as the valve) ruled the roost. Canadian Duncan MacKinnon and American Alonzo T Cross being the prime movers.
Once the problem of identifying the right material for the body of the pen and the issues relating to the regulation of the flow of ink during writing were sorted out, the one thing that had attracted the attention of the inventors and the manufacturers alike was that of addressing the mess created either during the filling of the pen or due to leaking inside the cap.
The history of fountain pens, from this point onwards was therefore one primarily about the development of filling systems, with almost everyone chasing the elusive perfect self-filler. While self-fillers were literally abundant, around the turn of the century, the most famous (and successful) were Conklin’s Crescent Filler, followed by A.A. Waterman’s twist-filler. The leaver filler introduced by Sheaffer in 1912 and the Button Filler a close contemporary from Parker were however, the game changers.
There are to cut a long story short, among others, filling systems as diverse as their names suggest: 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.
The apogee of filling systems was reached with the launch of the Snorkel from the house of Sheaffer. Today however, most fountain pens have 3-in-1 filling systems – basic eyedropper fillers that take converters and cartridges, though “exotic” filling systems, especially in high end pens are also pretty common.
Fountain Pen Collecting
Fountain pen collecting, as a hobby, is extremely popular and belies the fact that the history of the fountain pen, for all practical purposes is less that two hundred years old – a brief span in which we have not only witnessed its global dominance but also its fall from grace.
While thehobby is perhaps as old as the first fountain pens, it has seen a huge global resurgence over the last decade, fuelled by the internet boom and globalisation, which has not only shrunk the world and made sharing of information possible in a scale that was previously unimaginable, but also by bringing cross border trade well within the grasp of the ordinary.
While vintage and antique pens justifiably attract the maximum attention of the collectors, modern fountain pens too are witnessing a good amount of consideration of the connoisseurs. The fact that the fen is not merely a collectable item, but can actually be used, with all its attendant rewards, is another reason for the hobby getting a fillip.
Fountain pens are also being picked up, especially by the younger generations as a protest against the digital domination of their lives, as a conscious effort to go retro, to enjoy the very act of putting pen on paper and see their thoughts crystallise for posterity, to deliberately slow down.
The hobby has given rise to innumerable groups and forums for pen lovers and collectors in the social media which are, in their unique ways, aiding and abetting the spread of the culture of collecting.
Why use a fountain pen
Because it is a pleasure to write with a fountain pen – something no other writing implement can match. Writing improves the motor skills: mind-body coordination and leads to improved retention, which is an invaluable learning aid. Writing also acts as a catharsis, helping in the process of releasing pent up tensions, which is one of the biggest killers of the times. A fountain pen is thus one of the biggest psychosomatic disease busters apart from being the one implement that is fighting to keep the art of calligraphy alive.
More than anything else, a fountain pen is worth many times over as a Sustainable, eco-friendly and climate neutral alternative to the menace of use and throw. If lifetime assessments are done, a fountain pen will prove to be many times more carbon efficient than the alternatives – neither does it guzzle energy got by burning fossil fuel, nor does it end up as quickly in the landfills or the ocean floors as the ball point pens tend to.
The fountain pen is a conversation starter and speaks volumes about the one using it often leading to lasting friendships that test even time.
Major fountain pen and Ink brands
Fisher-Space, Franklin-Christoph, Nock, Noodlers,Acme, Conklin, Cross, Esterbrook, Monteverde. Parker, Retro 51, Field Notes, Sheaffer, Waterman, Onoto, Conway Stewart,Yard-o-Led, Lamy, Pelikan,Montegrappa, Visconti, Ancora, Aurora, Hero, Wing Sung, Fuliwen, Sailor, Platinum, Platignum, Pilot, papermate, Rotring, Pentel, Kaweco, KWH, TSSBI, Benu Pens, Carand’Ache