A fountain pen is a writing instrument, more specifically a pen that contains a reservoir of liquid ink composed primarily of water.
The ink is held in the reservoir by air pressure until needed, at which time it is fed to a nib through a “feed” via a combination of gravity and capillary action. Refilling ink either involves replacing an ink cartridge, filling the pen with an eyedropper, or using one of a variety of internal mechanisms to suck ink from a bottle. Older pens squeezed and released a rubber sack to create the suction needed. Most modern pens use a screw and piston to create the vacuum.
The earliest historical record of a reservoir pen dates to the 10th century but it is likely that attempts at a fountain pen go back much further into the past. The earliest surviving reservoir pens date to the 18th century. Progress in developing a reliable pen was slow, however, into the mid-19th century. That slow pace of progress was due to a very imperfect understanding of the role that air pressure played in the operation of the pens and because most inks were highly corrosive and full of sedimentary inclusions.
Starting in the 1850’s there was a steadily accelerating stream of fountain pen patents and pens in production. It was only after three key inventions were in place, however, that the fountain pen became a widely popular writing instrument. Those inventions were the iridium-tipped gold nib, hard rubber, and free-flowing ink. The first fountain pens making use of all these key ingredients appeared in the 1850s. In the 1870s Duncan MacKinnon, a Canadian living in New York City, and Alonzo T. Cross of Providence, Rhode Island created stylographic pens with a hollow, tubular nib and a wire acting as a valve. Stylographic pens are now used mostly for drafting and technical drawing but were very popular in the decade beginning in 1875. It was in the 1880s that the era of the mass-produced fountain pen finally began.
At this time fountain pens were almost all filled by unscrewing a portion of the hollow barrel or holder and inserting the ink by means of an eyedropper. This was a slow and messy system. Additionally, fountain pens tended to leak inside their caps and at the joint where the barrel opened for filling. Now that the materials problems had been overcome and the flow of ink while writing had been regulated, the next problems to be solved were the creation of a simple, convenient self-filler and the problem of leakage. Self-fillers began to come into their own around the turn of the century; the most successful of these was probably the Conklin crescent-filler, followed by A. A. Waterman’s twist-filler. The tipping point, however, was the runaway success of Walter A. Sheaffer’s lever-filler, introduced in 1912, paralleled by Parker’s roughly contemporary button-filler.
In America, the pen-making industry officially began in 1809. But, it wasn’t until the 1880s that the fountain pen, as we know it got its start. Among the early industry leaders was George Safford Parker, a schoolteacher from Janesville, WI who became frustrated with the unreliability of the writing instruments then available to his students. In 1832 by John Jacob Parker with the first self-filling fountain pen. Until this time the devices were filled with funnels or eyedroppers. Putting the point in ink and turning the end of the case to raise an internal piston fill parker’s pen. The tube of the pen was lined with glass or gold to protect against corrosive inks, and the cap had a wire, which entered and sealed the feed when replaced for carrying.
The earliest fountain pens were mostly eyedropper fillers – that is, the pen was essentially an empty reservoir, which one would fill with an eyedropper. This was a relatively awkward and messy process, though the absence of complicated mechanisms meant that an eyedropper-filler could hold much more ink than could a self-filling pen of comparable size. As a result, eyedropper-filling pens constitute only a tiny fraction of pens made today. After the eyedropper-filler era came the first generation of mass-produced self-fillers, almost all using a rubber sac to hold the ink. By various mechanisms, the sac could be compressed and then released in order to empty and fill the pen.
The Conklin crescent filler, introduced c. 1901, was one of the first mass-produced self-filling pen designs. The crescent filling system employs an arch-shaped crescent attached to a rigid metal pressure bar, with the crescent portion protruding from the pen through a slot and the pressure bar inside the barrel. A second component, a C-shaped hard rubber ring, is located between the crescent and the barrel. Ordinarily, the ring blocks the crescent from pushing down. However, when it comes time to fill the pen, one simply turns the ring around the barrel until the crescent matches up to the hole in the ring, allowing one to push down the crescent and squeeze the internal pen sac.
Following the crescent filler came a series of systems of increasing complexity, reaching their apogee in the Sheaffer Touchdown and Snorkel systems. With the introduction of cartridge pens by Waterman-Jif, though, many of these systems were phased out in favor of convenience (but reduced capacity). Today, most pens either utilize piston-fillers or cartridges, although the latter can usually be converted to piston-fill with the use of a converter.
The piston filler, first introduced in the original Pelikan of 1929 was somewhat of an anomaly in an age of sac-filling pens. The idea was a simple one: merely twist a knob at the end of the pen, and an internal piston will drive up and down the barrel, forcing ink out or in. While the capacity of these pens was not comparable to some of the better sac systems, and certainly not the eyedropper pen, they offered convenience only second to the cartridge. The reason for their lack luster capacities is the size of the piston unit. In order to effectively drive the whole way down the barrel, some of the earlier models had to devote as much as half of the pen length to a complicated system. The advent of telescoping pistons has in some respects remedied this, but piston fillers are still sometimes foregone today in favor of older methods.
Most European fountain pen brands (for example Caran d’Ache, Faber-Castell, Dupont, Montegrappa, Stipula, Yard-O-Led, Pelikan, Waterman, Montblanc, Monteverde, Delta and Rotring) and some pen brands of other continents (for example Bexley, Retro51, Tombow and Acura) use so called “international cartridges” (AKA “european cartridges” or “standard cartridges” or “universal cartridges”), in short or long sizes, or both. It is to some extent a standard; so international cartridges of any manufacturer can be used in most fountain pens that accepts international cartridges. Also, converters that are meant to replace international cartridges can be used in most fountain pens that accept international cartridges. Some very compact fountain pens (for example Waterman Ici et La and Monteverde Diva) accept only short international cartridges. Converters cannot be used in them (except for so-called mini-converters by Monteverde).
Many fountain pen manufacturers have at various times developed their own proprietary cartridges, for example Parker, Lamy, Sheaffer, Cross, and Namiki. Fountain pens from Aurora, Hero, Duke and Uranus accept the same cartridges and converters that Parker uses and vice versa. Cartridges of Aurora are slightly different from cartridges Parker. Hero, Duke and Uranus have made few fountain pens that take international cartridges.
Corresponding converters to be used instead of such proprietary cartridges are usually made by the same company that made the fountain pen itself. Some very compact fountain pens accept only proprietary cartridges made by the same company that made that pen, for example Sheaffer Agio Compact and Sheaffer Prelude Compact. It is not possible to use converter in them at all. In such pens the only practical way to use another brand of ink is to fill empty cartridges with bottled ink using a syringe.
The nib of the fountain pen is usually made of stainless steel or gold. Gold nibs are tipped with a hard, wear-resistant alloy that typically utilizes metals from the platinum group. Tipping material is often called “iridium”, even though hardly any pen makers still use that metal in their tipping alloys. Steel nibs may also have harder tips; those without steel points will wear more rapidly due to abrasion by the paper.
The nib usually has one slit cut down its center, to convey the ink down the nib by capillary action, as well as a “breather hole” of varying shape to promote the exchange of air for ink in the pen’s reservoir. The whole nib narrows to a point where the ink is transferred to the paper. Broad calligraphy pens may have several slits in the nib to increase ink flow and help distribute it evenly across the broad point. Nibs divided into three ‘tines’ are commonly known as ‘music’ nibs, as their broad line is suited for writing musical scores.
Although the most common nibs end in a round point of various sizes (fine, medium, broad), other nib shapes are available. Examples of this are oblique, reverse oblique, stub and italic. Fountain pens dating from the first half of the 20th century are more likely to have flexible nibs, suited to the favored handwriting styles of the period. By the 1940s, writing preferences had shifted towards stiffer nibs that could withstand the greater pressure required for writing through copy paper to create duplicate documents.
Together with the mass-manufactured pencil and the introduction of cheap wood-based paper, the fountain pen was responsible for a major transformation in writing and in the nature of paperwork during the 19th century. They gave birth to the precursor of the modern office, which would only come about at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th with the gradual introduction of the typewriter and early duplicating machines.
The fountain pen, and, to a lesser extent, the pencil, replaced the relatively hard-to-use combination of the dip pen, blotter, and sand tray employed till then for writing. Using a dip pen was in fact a complex and often frustrating exercise due to the irregular flow of ink from the nib and other factors. In a sense, the introduction of the fountain pen can be compared to the advent of the early command line word processor and the dot matrix printer, which appeared before graphic word processing software and the laser printer.
Many serious writers to be the best tools for writing or drawing with ink on paper regard fountain pens. However, they can be more expensive, harder to maintain, and more fragile than a ballpoint pen. In addition, they cannot be used with the various oil- and particle-based inks (such as India ink) prized by artists, as can a dip pen, reed, or quill.
That said fountain pens require less hand pressure when writing than either ballpoint or roller ball pens. This allows for longer, more comfortable writing sessions with less hand fatigue. And fountain pen inks come in a far wider selection of colors than those available for ballpoint or roller ball pens, providing a nearly unlimited choice of colors for writing.