Vintage View: The history of the fountain pen

In an age when we rarely reach for a ballpoint, Kya deLongchamps scripts a little history of that old fashioned Christmas favourite — the fountain pen

ARE you old enough to remember the yield and part of a fountain pen nib touching paper? When my ragged peers and I were at school, maintaining and wielding an ink pen was a vital part of pleasing this or that nun hovering in a starchy, glowering cloud.

Oh, the shame of the errant blot on an otherwise perfect bit of script — disaster for a report card. Some new papers, clearly meant for the still outlawed ball-point, cruelly sloughed off the flow, while others drank it in too deeply, causing a minor desk-top drama, as we readjusted to the pressure required.

Without a fine nib and a deft hand, the fibrous mathematic copies with their tortuous little boxes, were a real cause for adolescent anxiety. Capillary action and sips of gravity even channelled through the best pen could let you down when it counted.

Cartridges like tea bags stirred through a single cup, were not favoured by everyone. These were changing times of new conveniences, and the original stoneware ink wells that would have been filled by a teacher for dipping pens, were still set in the desks, bruised with ancient liquids.

Some parents insisted on the intricacy of pen filling, tweaking back the reservoir piston — determined little gunslingers, cocking their gun.

There was a bit of showing off around pens each September. Marian D, we were sure, had more than gold plating on her Parker. Chic pen sheaths and velvet boxes were expected and set at the top of the slope for admiration. The plastic cartridge solved most, if not all, of our calligraphy issues.

Dipping pens made from pared feathers (penna — feather) later fashioned in metal and wood, were great servants, but could slop ink as they were swooped from well to paper.

There had been sustained efforts since the 10th century to overcome the problem with loaded handles intended to feed ink systematically down to the nib. In 1663, essayist Samuel Pepys mentions a metal device probably developed from earlier fountain-style pens formed by a quill stuck inside another quill, the reservoir quill sealed with a tiny cork.

Josiah Mason of Birmingham sketched a new chapter in the development of democratising the fountain pen with his slip-in nib patented in 1828. Birmingham would go on to become a World-renowned centre for the manufacture of cheap, available, if scratchy durable steel nibs for dippers.

Petrache Poenaru, a Romanian, patented a pen barrel loaded with a swan quill in 1827. The nib was pressed down, letting a little air into the reservoir which in turn drove a little ink out, dripping down to the tip of the nib.

Poenaru’s pen and other early versions were still difficult to handle, blotting and leaking frequently. Without any balanced rate of flow and using dirty diluted early ink full of inclusions and muck, they were erratic in their delivery. A lot of thought went into a sealing lid, as the fountain pen simply poured tiny amounts of ink from the nib.

The names of the pioneers of our fountain pens are still written large in the fine writing and drafting instruments we use today. The 1870s and 1880s saw the essential re-engineering of the pen with springs, rubber parts and the coveted iridium-tipped gold nib.

Lewis E Waterman is generally credited with the first commercial internal reservoir c1888. The stylographic pen, still loved by artists and architects, was invented by Duncan MacKinnon and Alonzo T Cross (of Cross pens), a whole other subsection of fountains.

George S Parker introduced the ‘lucky-curve’ a small bent tube between the nib and the side wall of the reservoir. This sucked any excess ink and air back from the page preventing leaks and finger smears.

If you have even a modern fountain pen armed with a pre-filled cartridge, look under the slit nib and you’ll see the collector fins, designed to hold any unwanted ink and prevent excessive discharge.

Early fountain pens in machined rubber were simply filled with syringes or eye droppers. New self-fillers contained small bladder like ink sacks, which were depressed with a lever which flattened the reservoir, drawing up ink back to the vacuum through the nib.

These were all variations of what is known as the Coklin patent (Crest-fill) by collectors, founded by an Ohio pen maker with Mark Twain acting as their celebrity PR. George Safford Parker and the Waterman Company, perfected the air/ink feed and exacting air pressure required for ideal ink flow in the late 1880s, detailing their pens with reliable valves and sealing the nibs under double, bearing-fitted lids. This made pens safe enough for a box in a man’s valise by the 1920s.

Casings in celluloid, fine metals and plating allowed pens to be given as lovely and intimate gifts. The variety in the ingenious operation of the pen, added engineering flair and fascination, something that has held with collectors of pens old and new.

They remain writing instruments, primarily, with diminutive engineering. Look out for vintage models from prestige names including Montblanc, Shaeffer, Onoto, Graf von Faber-Castell (est 1761), Caran d’Ache, Tighe (titanium pens) and Visconti.

The world’s most expensive pen? Currently this is held by the Fulgor Nocturnus by Italian maker Tibaldi with a glistening skin of 945 black diamonds and 123 rubies.

It sold at auction for around €6,760,000 in 2010. Now, there’s some proper flash for assembly in September 2018!

Something nice for €50-€150? A Parker Duofold with Vacumatic action and 14ct gold nib, c1925-1970. Black is most affordable, but look out for Red Permanite, a sweet coral shade from the 20s. Check out the following website for a range of vintage pens:

Further Reading: Fountain Pens by Peter Twydle (UK Pen Museum), Crowood Press, 2009; €24.94 at Easons.

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