John Krewalk

Up Parker Sheaffer

Brief History of the Fountain Pen

The story of the fountain pen could not be told without a few words about its predecessor, the dip pen. Dip pens were used by the scribes of the Egyptian kings over 4000 years ago. Scribes used a sharp stick or goose quill shaved to a point and dipped in berry juice to keep inventory of write a letter. An improvement on the quill was not made until the late 1700s with the introduction of the metal pen point in a plain or fancy holder. Reliable fountain pens were not perfected until the 1880s.

Today's collectors will tell you that Lewis E. Waterman is the father of the Fountain Pen. His pen was patented and then introduced in 1884. Actually, the idea and production of the fountain pen was begun in the early 1880s. The idea was simple. Put a reservoir of ink behind a pen point and one would no longer have to dip one's pen into a bottle of ink. As easy as it sounded, it was not easy to put into practice. Several problems appeared immediately. The first was that if the reservoir was closed, the ink would not flow out of it, but if there was an opening in the reservoir, all of the ink would flow out at once. Many ideas were proposed to solve the problem but few worked as expected. In 1809, an inventor named Folsch had patented a pen with a reservoir that contained a valve at the end. Theoretically, the ink would flow when the valve was opened a little and not flow when it was closed. Would the pen work as promised? It did not, as there was a second major problem: the ink.

Ink, as we know it today, is a space age product compared to ink in the early 1800s. Then ink was a thick liquid containing a sludge of solids. Using it presented a minimal problem for the dip pen, but if this sludge stayed in the fountain pen for any length of time, the solids would settle out and clog the openings. Had L. E. Waterman produced his pen in the early 1800s, it would have failed miserably. Different inks were produced during the nineteenth century to solve the sludge problem. Dyes were tried, but the were not acceptable as the dye would be absorbed into the paper, creating blobs of ink instead of lines. The object was to have the ink dry quickly on top of the paper. Metals dissolved in acid seemed to produce a good ink but it soon burned right through the paper and often through the skin!

By the 1860s, an ink was being produced that was both permanent and reasonably safe. Water would not wash it away, nor would it fade with age. It was, however, highly corrosive to the steel pen points then in use. The only option was to use a metal that would not be attack by the ink. Gold was substituted because it was impervious to the effects of the ink and dip pens with gold nibs became the preferred writing instrument. Gold, being a soft metal, had a limited life expectancy as a nib since the tip wore away quickly.

What was needed was a metal tip that a) was impervious to the corrosive ink; b) was hard enough to stand up to daily use; c) could be bonded to the gold; and d) be polished to a smooth finish. Iridium, a rare metal, was the material of choice. At the time, it was more expensive than gold and mined in very limited quantities. Iridium was produced as a powder and melted into tiny balls which were soldered to the gold point. The point was then slit by a very thin, high speed wheel to produce the iridium-tipped, gold nib.

By the 1880s, the technology necessary to produce a working fountain pen had been perfected. Fountain pens were soon being produced by many makers including A.T. Cross, Mabie Todd, Paul E. Wirt, John Holland, Eagle, Caw and others.