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WHAT IS A FOUNTAIN PEN

Updated: Nov 28, 2021

An apparently simple question that might has multiple answers.

So, what is a fountain pen? It certainly is a writing instrument that is around since the second half of 19th century, nevertheless the object itself embody a series of different means of use.

One can be a writing instrument enthusiast who likes to collect his favorite pens and enjoy writing with different nibs and inks.

Others could use it to find a piece of quiet while drawing colorful doodles or geometric patterns.

If intended as an accessory, it can certainly be used to define a person style in the similar way as a wrist watch or a pair of sunglasses, but with a major difference... the seduction of handwriting gesture, and the poetic accent of such an analog instrument.

In 20th century so many beautiful designs has been created and there is plenty of choice of the best fountain pens that can fulfill the needs of any user and collector.



When was the fountain pen invented?


It is hard to know when was invented or who was the first to invent it, because during more than a century of development, inventors got inspired from each other on a global attempt to create the best writing instrument.

At the beginning of 19th century the greatest industrial revolution our species ever lived was going to happen, but there was no iPhone or laptops… to save any information permanently you needed to have a table, the light of a candle an ink bottle and a dip pen or a quill.

The demand for an instrument like a fountain pen was so urgent that many of the patent designs came from users that wanted a better and safer instrument. Some of them have created pen brands that dominates nowadays market.

Who invented the fountain pen?


Many brilliant inventors (Folsch, Scheffer, Parker, Poenaru, MacKinnon&Cross, Pelikan to name a few) patented designs of integrated ink reservoir fountain pens, but two main issues were still present; ink leakage and discontinuous ink flow.

Thanks to innovation, by the end of the century, the leakage problems were solved when inventions like the screw-on caps and the jointless barrel were introduced.

In the same way in which components and mechanisms have evolved, inks follow these developments becoming more liquid and less harmful for the instruments components.

To have a uniform ink flow on paper, neither too much nor too little, was the last problem to solve.

Lewis Edison Waterman achieved this goal in 1884.

He patented the “three fessure feed” that allow ink to flow continuously and avoids drops leaking.

So we could say that Waterman was the inventor of the crucial component that led the fountain pen to be the one we know today.



How a fountain pen is made?


Let’s try to underline the most relevant components.

As you can imagine every writing instrument is composed from several parts.

The nib is a metal plate bended and trimmed in very specific shapes with a thin ballpoint at the tip (usually made of iridium) that permit to write smoothly. Right in the nib centre an ultra thin slit cuts the nib in half to let the ink flow down. This slit ends where, usually but not always, a breather hole is placed.

The most frequently used are steel nibs due to be the most convenient and resistant even though gold nibs are always considered the better one thanks to the metal flexibility and aesthetics. Very rare are titanium nibs.

There are many different nib sizes and points to choose from.


Beneath the nib there is the feeder (that presents a cavity hole to let the air get in and tree channels to let the ink come out) with its collector fins (to avoid ink spill). It is usually made of polymeric material, rarely in ebonite.

The nib and the feeder are inserted through the grip (the component where the fingers holds during writing) inside the section (the element that connect the writing elements to the ink tank).

It can be made of various materials but most luckily metal or resin.


To the back of the section is connected an ink storage system of which the most common are a concealed reservoir, a converter or cartridge one.

The pen body is composed from the cap and the barrel where the cap is needed to protect the nib from accidental bump and from dry out, while the barrel is the element that embrace the section and houses the ink filling system.

Most of models presents clips on the cap and other decorative elements like engraved bands or polished rings to enrich the overall aesthetic.



What’s the magic behind fountain pens ?

When writing with a fountain pen there are tree different forces that influence each other; the atmospheric pressure that force us to have two holes to let liquids came out of a tank smoothly (one for air intake and the other for liquid emission), the gravity that pushes any liquid to flow downward and the surface tension, or capillarity, that forces liquids to run on a surface (trough the feeder channels to the nib slit).

When holding the pen vertically on the paper only a little ink will come out from the nib tip.

The gentle pressure of the hand while dragging the pen along the paper allows the ink to flow down trough the narrow space of the nib slit. At the same time the air will enter into the tank through the feeder cavity filling the gap left from the ink emission.

To have a proper ink flow it is necessary to find a balanced interaction of these forces that is possible when a correct design of each pen component has taken place.



Which kind of filling mechanism a fountain pen can have?


A relevant aspect while selecting a fountain pen model is to find the filling mechanism that would sweet our needs.

During the last two centuries many patent of new filling mechanism had been deposited. By “natural selection” only the most practical ones survived until today. Let’s list them.

Cartridges

The classic small plastic tube filled with ink.

Probably the simplest solution in terms of loading, the most convenient in terms of transport and the least expensive of all.

There are “standard international” cartridges sizes that one can use in most of the pens, but not all.

Fountain pens using standard cartridges will give the user a wide range of color to choose form.

Most brands developed proprietary cartridges so that the user need to stick with that specific cartridge model drastically limiting the choice of color.

On the other hand ink cartridges does not have a large range of color compared to bottled ink. Moreover, they have a small capacity and they are not the most environmentally sustainable choice.


Converter

It’s a replaceable screw piston filling mechanism, basically a little piston converter.

Converter is really useful to play with all bottled colors but, unfortunately, often has no more capacity than a cartridge and are not all interchangeable. Therefore, never forget to check the compatibility with the pen model.

Surely they are more environmentally friendly then cartridges cause they are reusable many times.


Built-in filling systems

There is the Piston filling system that works like a converter but allows a much larger ink capacity.

There are slightly different piston filler mechanism and they all are very intriguing and fun to plat with.

The other one is the vacuum filling system that works similarly to a syringe. Vacuum fillers are the safest choice in therms of ink leaking since one can actually block the ink flow from the reservoir to the feeder.

With both systems one has to dip the nib into an ink bottle and there is no choice to use a cartridge system of any sort.

On the other end, built-in filling mechanisms load way more ink than any other system.


Which materials are used to make fountain pens?


Finally, we must mention the development of the materials used to create the outer shell of these instruments as they are an innovative and distinctive element of the various brands and models.

For summary, we mention only the most commonly used materials.


Ebonite

It has been used intensively from the late 19th century to the early 20th century due to its characteristics of workability and chemical inertness. In fact, this material does not react to ink corrosion, which is why, even today, it is used to produce feeders.

Ebonite is a very hard material but suffers from mechanical fragility, so it can easily break due to involuntary impacts.

It is quite complex to produce and can not be molded into stamps.

Moreover, this material compel to only have a black fountain pen, because it is very hard to create colorful ebonite.

This material was replaced due to its obvious critical aspects, but it has been the first to push the expansion of fountain pen use worldwide.


Metals

First attempt to create a full metal pen appears to be in early 19th century resulted in a lot of ink leakage and components corrosion. This is because ink composition was quite aggressive over certain metals alloy used back then.

The use of metal was re-introduced in collaboration with the use of ebonite. Metal “jackets” were applied around the ebonite body in order to solve two problems with one solution, decoration and durability. Even though the weight was compromised.

Only after inventing filling mechanisms that allows the ink to do not touch metal components, the creation of full metal pens was possible.

Metal pens are extremely durable and can also be colored, the only negative aspect is the heavy-weight.

Moreover, metals are way more expensive in terms of primary material and manufacturing costs and this is why there are very few models compared to polymer based resins.


Celluloide

Invented around 1860, celluloid is considered to be the first thermoplastic resin ever produced.

At a temperature of about 60 ° the material becomes malleable and can also be molded.

The secret of its success comes from the fact that it is an unbreakable, elastic, impact-resistant and waterproof material. Moreover it can be transparent or colored and combined with other material.

Thanks to its remarkable properties and the infinite shiny colors range available, this material has ruled the world of fountain pens from the 1920s until the ‘40s and more.

The aspects that saw this material decay are due to the fact that it requires a rather complex processing. Crystallizations can occur during the drying process which leads to a weakening of the material. Controlling this process is rather complex. Celluloid can also suffer from discoloration and is an highly flammable material.

However, those bright colors make celluloid an iconic material that takes us back to the extravagant years between the two world wars.


Plastic resin

With this term we can generically define an infinite number of plastic polymers processed by injection molding developed from the 1940s to the present days.

This material is simply the least expensive in terms of manufacturing, the most versatile in terms of coloring and it also has good elastic and mechanical properties. It is no coincidence that it is by far the most used today.

The first resins, such as lucite or polystyrene, had the disadvantage of being monochromatic, but, in a short time, the processing extends to any type of colored resin that have little to envy to celluloid.

From the ’60s onwards, manufacturers introduced a series of composite polymers such as Makrolon, a compound of polycarbonate and glass fiber, or the more recent lava stone resin, a compound of basaltic lava and resin.

Although some companies claim the "preciousness" of their special resins, technical evolutions in the processing of plastic resins can no longer conceal the reality of having the lowest cost given the type of production and materials.

Celluloid itself, being in any case a low-cost resin, needs a much longer working process and with greater waste of material, consequently it remains a more “precious” resin than the plastic ones.


It goes without saying that carbon fiber is a very different material from those mentioned above and we will explain you why...



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