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A Fine Line: The Joys of Fountain Pens

G. Bruce Boyer
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

(continued from page 1)

"There is indeed something of a rubber-band effect," notes Edward Fingerman, a collector of vintage pens and distributor of modern writing instruments, as well as vice president of Pen Collectors of America--the largest organization of its kind in the United States, with more than a thousand members. "I think it's telling that about three-quarters of the new pens on the market today have a decidedly retro look to them. The new Parker Duofold is an elegant example. It looks like a 1930s classic fountain pen, and that's obviously a considerable part of its appeal."

Perhaps we should also consider the argument, put forth by French pen collectors Pierre Haury and Jean-Pierre Lacroux in their elegant book, A Passion for Pens (Greentree Publications, 1993, 195 pages, $90), that a pen represents a heritage, a link with writers of the past, so "we feel that without it a bridge would collapse behind us in the terrifying silence of our distorted memories."

"I think people who are interested in pens are more erudite," says Fingerman. "It stands to reason that they're more interested in writing, in words and language--particularly on a personal level."

As a technological invention itself, the fountain pen's superiority over its ancestor, the quill, has been a triumph of American ingenuity. The obstacles of having a pen that would carry its own ink supply, and discharge that supply appropriately, were solved by L.E. Waterman, George Parker and Walter Sheaffer--all American inventors in the tradition of the true amateur.

There were fountain pens before L.E. Waterman--indeed since at least the eighteenth century--but Waterman identified and solved the main problem of "feed," i.e., the regulation of the ink flow.

The apochryphal story is that Waterman, an insurance broker in New York City during the nineteenth century, lost an important bit of business because the fountain pen he carried dripped ink all over a crucial contract at the moment of the client's signing. Waterman vowed it would never happen again. He studied contemporary styles of fountain pens and concluded that the essential problem was controlling the ink flow. By experimenting he eventually developed a system in which the flow of ink was equalized with an intake of air: ink flows in one direction, air in the other, as capillary action (the surface tension on the ink) draws the ink to the paper. Waterman patented his system on Feb. 12, 1884. "A historic date," in the words of Haury and Lacroux, "because it is without question this event that marks the birth of the fountain pen as we know it today." All feed systems with which pens were subsequently equipped were based on Waterman's ink-air exchange principle.

So the true fountain pen is relatively modern. People have been leaving their marks on uncluttered surfaces for at least 5,000 years. First with chalk and graphite sticks, then reeds and feather quills, and, with the Industrial Revolution, metal pen tips, called nibs. About the same time, people began seriously to dream about the pen as an independent tool not tied to an ink well. It wasn't a problem of holding the ink in the pen, but rather getting it to come out in a steady flow on paper, i.e., how to "feed" the nib. When Waterman solved this problem of hydromechanics, the modern age of pens began.

What differentiates one pen from another mechanically is not so much the feed system, but the ways in which the ink reservoirs are filled in the first place. The most primitive was to use an eyedropper to fill the hollow barrel of the pen. Next, a lever or button filling device was used with rubber bladders; after that, a variety of pistons and plungers were invented, then vacuum tubes. Finally, systems were developed using reservoirs independent of the pen's body: today's ink cartridges are at once the simplest and most recently developed filling systems for fountain pens (cartridges were first patented by the French firm of JiF in 1936).

After the feed system, the most important part of the pen is the nib, the writing point itself. Interchangeable steel nibs first appeared in Birmingham, England, around 1820. They were a vast improvement over reeds and quills, but subject to corrosion and rust. Glass nibs were also tried, and used up to the 1920s. Their main drawback was their inflexibility and fragility, and ink tended to dry on the point too quickly, hindering flow.

Precious metals--gold, silver and platinum--have all been used to make nibs. Gold is considered the ideal material for nibs since it is impervious to corrosion and flexible. Its drawback--apart from the expense--is that its softness causes wear resulting from friction with the paper. The solution was to reinforce the tip with a small cap of a harder metal. Today, most fine pens have a gold nib--either 14 karat or 18 karat--with an iridium cap (which is more expensive than the gold it protects). Stainless steel nibs, introduced during the Second World War, are used mainly for less expensive pens.

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