by Chris Woodford. Last updated: March 22, 2020.
Will there come a time when handwriting is completely obsolete?
It just might happen! Most of us write far less than we used to: we laser print documents
typed on our computers, pay for things by swiping credit cards
through a machine (where once we'd have written checks), and even
send our most personal thoughts to other people by email, instant
message, or SMS (text message). If you're lucky, you might still get
letters and greetings cards in the mail that have been written out by hand.
And if you're super lucky, they might have been lovingly handwritten
with a fountain pen—probably the most individual and expressive
instrument you can use for sending a written message to another
person. How exactly do these ink-scribbling machines work? Let's take a closer look!
Photo: A quiver of fountain pens from my collection. These are all modern pens, but the design hasn't changed much since the original pen of this type was invented in the late 19th century. The ones on either side are made by Parker; the pen in the middle is made by the Germany firm Pelikan.
What is a fountain pen?
Illustration: Before fountain pens came along, many people wrote with sharpened feathers called quills.
This is the scribbling hand of John Ridge, a Cherokee, pictured c.1838 in a lithograph by John T. Bowen,
courtesy of US Library of Congress.
Writing technology is still much the same as it was several
thousand years ago: the basic idea of making your mark with some kind of
pigment (a color chemical used in inks, paints,
and dyes) remains as valid today as it was to our ancestors. Some
things have moved on: instead of scratching words with reeds or
made from bird feathers, most people opt for inexpensive, plastic
ballpoint pens. These use a relatively viscous (thick and sticky) ink
supplied from a thin tube that dries almost as soon as it hits the
page. Some people prefer fiber tips, a relatively recent invention (developed by Yukio Horie
of Pentel in the early 1960s), in which a soft plastic point drags a liquid or gel
ink from a sponge concealed in the main tube of the pen. But people who really want to
leave their mark choose a fountain pen, which uses a much more runny liquid ink.
It's very easy to make a mess with ink like this—and that's why the design
of the pen is particularly important.
Fountain pen parts
Photo: A closeup of a typical fountain pen nib. Note the grooves of the plastic collector underneath the metal nib. The feed passes through the center of the collector and the wider black tube on the right, which is the bit your fingers hold and is known as the section.
A fountain pen has four key parts:
- The reservoir (the ink tube concealed in the pen's handle).
- The nib (the pointed metal end that you drag over the paper).
- The feed (a plastic tube with three thin channels running down inside
it that connects the nib to the reservoir).
- The collector (visible as a set of grooves or fins just beneath the nib, this part of the feed collects ink flowing from the reservoir and stops too much flooding out at once).
There are a few other less essential bits and pieces too. There's a cap that conceals
the nib when the pen's not in use and stops the ink leaking into your
coat. Usually the cap has a clip on it so you can wear the pen safely in your pocket.
There's a protective outer case called the barrel, covering the reservoir at the opposite end, often made from a highly
attractive material coated with lacquer. In most fountain pens, the
reservoir is either a refillable plastic tube (with a miniature piston/plunger mechanism
inside it for drawing in ink from a bottle) or a disposable ink cartridge.
How does a fountain pen work?
Crudely simplified, a fountain pen is a bit like a bottle filled
with blue or black water. Imagine trying to write something with
a bottle of water and it's easy to figure out the science of how a fountain pen
works. Suppose you take the top off a full water bottle, tip it
upside down, and try writing your name with it. What happens? The water floods out rapidly—glug-glug-glug!—in about 10 seconds flat and soaks your page, the desk, the
floor, and everything else in sight. The "glugs" aren't me trying to be funny:
they're important—and we'll come back to them in a moment.
The power of pressure
What if you modified the water bottle so, instead of a relatively
large open neck, it had only a tiny hole at the top? You can try this
for yourself. Go to a bathroom or kitchen where you can safely make a
mess. Take an old drinks bottle with a plastic lid, fill it with
water, and screw the lid on tight. Now make a small hole in the lid
with a pin and turn the bottle upside down. You'll find the water
doesn't come out at all (or if it does, only incredibly slowly). The
reason is simple. Despite the weight of the water pushing down, air
pressure is pushing up in the opposite direction and stopping the water from leaving the
bottle. The air acts a bit like a finger pushing up and blocking the hole!
If you now make a second small hole in the top of the bottle
(the end that's up in the air, opposite the lid—the end that's normally the bottom of the bottle),
you'll find the water starts to come out, as you'd expect. Air can enter the top of
the bottle and that allows water to escape from the bottom. Cover
the air hole with your finger and you'll stop the water flowing out; open
the air hole and the water drips out once again.
Photo: You might think I'm emptying water from this bottle, but you could also see it the opposite way: I'm filling it with air. If air were visible, you'd see it rushing into the neck of the bottle past the line of water rushing out. The water can only get out if the air can get in. Exactly the same principle applies to a fountain pen.
Ink out, air in
Photo: Look closely at the nib of a fountain pen and you'll see it's split in two. When you use a pen like this, you can often see a line of ink flowing down the slit from the feed by the process of capillary action. If you look again at the first photo on this page, you'll see the light blue Pelikan pen in the center has a visible line of ink along the slit in its nib. Some pens (but not this one) have a large "breathing" hole at the top of the slit to allow air into the pen.
Now most of the time, we can tip water from a full bottle without
making a hole in it... so how does that work? Try it and see. Fill a
water bottle and then invert it. Instead of draining smoothly and
cleanly, you'll find the water leaves in jerky glugs, with huge air bubbles forming and rushing
up through the water from the bottom to the top. What's
happening is that air has to enter the bottle as water leaves, so
there's a constant fight at the neck between air going in and water
coming out—and that's what makes the glug-glug-glug noise. If you
tilt the water bottle more toward the horizontal and tip the water
out at a shallow angle, the air can enter at the same time as the
water leaves, without them fighting over the neck, so the glug noise disappears.
How does all this relate to a fountain pen? You can probably see
now that the mechanism of a fountain pen is as much about letting air
in as letting ink out. The feed incorporates a system of parallel channels,
three small ones for ink and one big one for air, so air can flow upward into the reservoir as ink flows down toward
the paper at a carefully controlled rate: you get just enough ink to
make a good, solid line, not so much that you flood the paper, and not
so little that the pen doesn't write at all.
Gravity and capillary action
When you write with a fountain pen, how does the ink get from the reservoir onto the page? It flows partly
through gravity (its own weight pulls it downward), but also through capillary action (the phenomenon where a liquid will automatically draw itself along a very thin tube—which is how water rises inside a plant). If you hold a fountain pen with the nib pointing straight down, gravity doesn't make the ink all pour out, as you might expect.
That's because the feed linking the nib to the reservoir is quite narrow. In effect,
we have a situation like the plastic bottle filled with water with a tiny hole punched in the lid: ink can't escape from
the fountain pen because air can't get in.
Artwork: This is roughly how the fountain pen feed works: it's a bit like a small pipe with three tiny ink channels running at the bottom of it and a bigger air channel right above them. As ink runs down the three ink channels, air enters the pen and runs past it, above it, in the opposite direction. The inset diagram on the right is looking at a cross-section of the feed (looking straight up the nib).
So how does the ink get out? When you put the nib on paper and drag it along, the ink is pulled
down a slit in the center of the nib, and down the feed, by capillary action. That means it's pulled partly by the adhesive forces between the ink and its container (the slit in the nib and the three little channels in the feed) and partly by the cohesive forces between every ink molecule and the ones following on behind it). More ink then flows down the feed from the reservoir to take its place. Think of it this way if you prefer: as each ink molecule hits the paper,
it drags on the molecules that are just inside the nib, tugging on them as
though they were linked by a chain, and eventually pulling ink from
the feed and the reservoir. Air enters the pen at the same time through the slit in the nib,
and moves in the opposite direction, gradually filling up the reservoir as it empties of ink.
Who really invented fountain pens?
Artwork: The original sketch of Lewis Waterman's invention from his 1884 patent. From US Patent 293,545: Fountain Pen by Lewis Waterman, patented February 12, 1884, courtesy of United States Patent and Trademark Office.
A penna for your thoughts! The word pen comes from a Latin word penna, which means
feather; from Roman times until the 19th century, most
writing instruments were quills, made from bird feathers. You simply
sharpened the end of a feather to make a point, dipped it in a pot of
ink, and scribbled away. When the quill started to go blunt, you'd
need to take out your knife and sharpen it again. Sooner
or later, your feather would be too short to sharpen
and you'd need to find another one. Not surprisingly, the
development of iron and steel technology during the 18th and 19th
century Industrial Revolution made quills obsolete: people found they preferred
pens with durable metal nibs to all that endless turkey-chasing and quill
Whether you wrote with a feather or a metal pen, there was
still a problem: you needed an ink pot (commonly called an ink well)
too. That was a bind for anyone who worked outdoors or away from a
desk, such as a traveling salesman. Various 19th-century inventors came up with
pens that had built-in ink reservoirs and capillary feeds, but generally they were quite messy
and unreliable. It was this difficulty that prompted a New York insurance salesman, Lewis E. Waterman
(1837–1901), to develop the modern fountain pen: a simple, convenient, portable pen with its
own ink supply built in. Waterman didn't invent the ink pen from scratch; nor did he invent the fountain
pen (a quick search of the US Patent and Trademark Office database shows several earlier, patented
designs—and historians believe the pen with built-in ink reservoir dates as far back as 10th-century Egypt).
But Waterman did make one of the key innovations: he perfected a simple, efficient feed system that could effectively exchange ink and air.
Artwork: A beautiful modern Waterman fountain pen dating from the early 1990s.
In his US patent (number 293,545), which was
granted on February 12, 1884, he notes that his invention has "but comparatively few parts" and is designed
"to secure and automatically regulate a certain and uniform flow of ink to the pen, and also to
prevent the excessive discharge of the ink when the pen is in use."
He explains that the basic mechanism involves a careful balance between
ink leaving the pen and air entering:
"The downward flow of the ink
by gravity and through the action of capillary attraction in the act
of writing causes it to pass through [a] groove, and tends to create
a vacuum within the reservoir, which is met by the influx of air
passing upward through the groove. The direction of the current of
air entering the ink-reservoir being opposite to that of the
outflowing ink, the volume of the latter is somewhat lessened, and
excessive discharge prevented."
Waterman's invention was an immediate success and his name still
adorns one of the world's leading brands of fountain pen to this day.
It's disappointing to find so little history on the company's website,
though they do have a timeline of Waterman pens running from 1883 to the present day.
Other inventors continued to refine the design, claiming their pens were cleaner and more reliable
than anything that had gone before. George S. Parker (1863–1937), founder of The Parker Pen Company, patented numerous refinements, including a simplified "self-filling" mechanism (1911), a leak-proof safety cap (1912), and a cunning feature he called the "lucky curve" (1911)—a bent tube connecting the nib of a fountain pen to the side wall of the reservoir, which ensured that any ink trapped in the top always drained back down again through capillary action, reducing the risk of a leak. According to an advertisement that ran in Popular Mechanics in October 1911, it was a revolutionary development: "Until George S. Parker of Janesville, Wisconsin, invented the 'Lucky Curve,' no fountain pen manufacturer was able to abolish finger smearing."
Artwork: George Parker's "Lucky Curve" fountain pen reduced the risk of leaks with a curved tube (blue) connecting the nib (red) to the ink reservoir (green). Excess ink in the nib drained back down to the reservoir by capillary action, making it less likely to spurt out into your pocket when the pen was not in use. From US Patent 990,288: Fountain Pen by George S. Parker, patented April 25, 1911, courtesy of United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Every inventor likes to claim credit. In truth, Waterman, Parker, and literally dozens of others played only a partial role in developing fountain pens as we know them today. It's impossible really to single out one person as "the" inventor of the fountain pen. Like many other inventions, from electric light bulbs to electronic computers, fountain pens illustrate how science and technology advance through years, decades, and sometimes even centuries of teamwork: the march of civilization relies more on cooperation than competition.
Find out more
On this website
You might like these other articles on our site covering related topics:
On other websites
- Fountain Pen: The Wikipedia article has a very good history of fountain pens that puts Waterman's invention into its broader context.
- The Pen Museum: A temple of pen history in the heart of England.
- Let the Fountain Pens Flow! by Miranda Purves. The New York Times, 26 December 2018. Why there's still plenty of room for analog fountain pens in the digital age.
- Where Fountain Pens Are Saved and Sold by Emily Brennan. The New York Times, 15 March 2017. A visit to the Fountain Pen Hospital in Lower Manhattan.
- When Buying Fountain Pens, Splurging (a Little) Is Totally Worth It by Richard Baguley. Wired, 24 September 2014. What to look for when you choose a new fountain pen (comfort, writing style, build quality, and clean filling are the main points to consider).
- Fare Thee Well, My Pen
The Demise of the Pen by Nick Bilton. The New York Times, July 23, 2014. Can pens really compete in the age of the touchscreen?
- Revive an
old fountain pen: The Guardian, 18 January 2010. How a 15-minute makeover can bring a dead pen back to life.
- The slow death of handwriting: BBC News, 26 February 2009. Will people write at all in the future?
- Did Biros really revolutionise writing? by Megan Lane. BBC News, 23 November 2009. How did ball pens change the way people write?
- Fountain pens boost 'self-esteem': BBC News, 13 November 2006. Why one school in Scotland has reverted to using fountain pens.
- Fountain Pens of the World by Andreas Lambrou. Philip Wilson Publishers, 2006. A comprehensive survey of pens manufactured in leading countries, including the USA, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and The Netherlands.
- Fountain Pens Past and Present by Paul Erano. Collector Books, 2004. Discusses eight of the most popular pen manufacturers, including Waterman.
- Fountain Pens: Their History and Art by Jonathan Steinberg. Universe, 2002. A short but beautifully illustrated guide to fountain pens through the ages.
- Identifying Fountain Pens: The New Compact Study Guide and Identifier by Jonathan Steinberg. Book Sales, 1997. What's that pen you found in a thrift shop? This short book will help you figure it out.