Fountain Pens

martin v earle By martin v earle, 5th Dec 2016 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Graphology

Fountain pens are often regardard as outmoded technology, but recently there has been a upsurge in their use. The lack of any kind of physical discomfort when using them, their durability and the subsequent saving in expenditures, and most of all their ability to enhance self-expression are cited as the main reasonsfor this trend.

History of the Fountain Pen.

The first pen was probably the stylus, a device used to etch on clay tablets, and used by the ancient Mesopotamians. Later people began to use bird feathers dipped in ink as writing implements, but the main drawbacks of these was the frequency with which they had to be dipped and a strong tendency to blot the paper.
And so the long and uneven development of the fountain was set in motion. The first reference to a pen containing an ink reservoir dates back to the tenth century, and in the following centuries there were a number of references made to what were presumably early prototypes of the fountain pen, though few details are available. The diarist Samuel Pepys, for instance, refers to a “metal pen” used to carry ink, and the journals of Leonardo Da Vinci contain a cross section of what appears to be a fountain pen that makes use of gravity and capillary action to facilitate the free flow of ink. But it wasn’t until the latter half of the nineteenth century that the fountain pen became a mass-produced item. It was during this period that the two materials, hard rubber and iridium (used in the manufacture of the nib) began to be made use of, and this together with the development of various methods used to prevent spillage did much to encourage the popularity of the fountain pen. The big breakthrough, however, came with the invention of a fountain pen that allowed for the free flow of ink by introducing the principle of capillary action. On the face of it, a fountain pen should work by the gravitational action of ink flowing down from the pen’s reservoir into the nib, but as the ink is depleted a vacuum builds up that effectively inhibits this action. The capillary principle works by replacing this vacuum with air, and in a patent granted in 1884 a solution was found to this problem that involved cutting three fissures in the pen’s lead, that part of the pen that connects the nib with the ink reservoir.

The Fountain Pen Looses Out to the Ballpoint

Development continued throughout the twentieth century, and in the 1950’s the use of ink cartridges became widespread. This effectively solved a problem that had bedeviled manufacturers for over a century: how to get ink into the pen’s chamber easily, conveniently and in a way which minimized spillages. But by then the writing was already on the wall for the fountain pen. As the technology matured ballpoint pens became cheaper and easier to use, and by the 1960’s sales of ballpoints began to outstrip those of fountain pens to a serious extent.

Recent Upsurge in Sales

Recently, however, there has been a surprising upsurge in the sales in the fountain pen. Though it is unlikely to ever to re-gain its ascendency over the ballpoint and rollerball pen, this does suggest that people are beginning to appreciate the previously unrecognized virtues of the fountain pen. To a certain extent the reasons for this are fairly superficial; and as such they have much to do with fashion, the desire to standout from others, and the essential “coolness” of the fountain pen.
But there is a lot more to it than this. Many people are put off by the high cost of the fountain pen, but when you take into account its durability; in many cases a pen can last decades, it can often work out to be cheaper than the ballpoint. Having lived in China for several years, I feel that I am in a position to truly appreciate this; such is the appallingly low-quality of the ballpoints sold there that I felt that I had no choice but to buy a large bag of them in the local supermarket, use one and toss it out as soon as it stopped working, in some cases not even being able to use it a single time before chucking it out. In our throw-away society this can amount to more than a mere annoyance. Surely it makes more ecological sense to simply replenish the ink rather than buy a whole new pen.

Why Writing with a Fountain Pens is Essentially Different

To truly appreciate the subtle delights of a fountain pen you have to actually own one-or at least try one out in the same way you’d test drive a car. This is because unlike a ballpoint there is no need to apply pressure to the point. Thus, writing becomes a relaxing, enjoyable activity in which the experience of physical discomfort, such as finger cramp, is entirely eliminated. This is surely a good thing in itself, but more importantly it influences the manner in which we go about the whole process of writing, and which in turn has important effects on the finished product. In operating a ballpoint pen we are limited to actions performed by the hand, whereas the whole arm can be used to operate a fountain pen. Anyone who has ever done any drawing or sketching can appreciate the importance of this point. A drawing done by using the hand alone is bound to be lifeless, cramped and devoid of all spontaneity. In contrast, by making use of the entire arm we open ourselves up to the body’s natural rhythms, and what we end up with is a drawing that, whatever its merits or lack of merits, is at least more expressive and livelier than a drawing made by using the former technique.
There are other reasons why someone might choose to make use of a fountain pen rather than a ballpoint or rollerball pen, but many of these are of relatively trivial importance. A fountain pen seems to be more appropriate for formal occasions, and for this reason this type of pen is more often used for affixing a signature to a bill passed by a legislative body or ratifying a treaty of some kind. Interestingly enough, however, a ballpoint pen was used as far back as 1945 when General Macarthur signed the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri. Of far more importance is the expressive power of the fountain pen, a characteristic which is of particular importance when writing a letter or a note. Many people prefer to write their more personal letters by hand rather than bang them out using a keyboard. And naturally a fountain pen seems to be the ideal choice for this purpose; for one thing it comes with an almost unlimited choice of ink color and type of type of nib, meaning that the user has far more choice in deciding how to give visual expression to the formal contents of his or her text. More importantly, however, and as discussed earlier, the fountain pen is in essence more expressive and versatile than the ballpoint or rollerball is, and this means that the recipient will be better able to judge the personality and mood of the sender as reflected in the visual contents of the letter, that the line, curves, angles, and general visual style of the letter will communicate something that the bare text alone is unable to give full expression to.


Development, Pens, Self-Expression, Writing

Meet the author

author avatar martin v earle
I am a translator and freelance writer.I intend to focus on health, lifestyle, food and a wide variety of other topics.
I am currently living in Cambodis.

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author avatar 蒼蝿水
30th Sep 2017 (#)


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author avatar Lesa Cote
14th Feb 2020 (#)

Thanks for the great post on fountain pens. You can check

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