The first Fountain Pens

Eye-dropper Fountain Pens and Safety Fountain Pens

Eye-dropper Fountain Pens and Safety Fountain Pens

Today, when we look at the earliest fountain pens, we are struck by their technical simplicity. They consist merely of a hollowed out barrel, a screw-on grip section with nib plus a cap. Even so, such pens were a major advance on the old fashioned type of nib and holder because the ink could now be transported inside the pen. The problem of always having to carry a bottle of ink around was thus solved.

In terms of shape, the nibs used were still very similar to those used in the older nib and holder types of pen. The single fact that this new pen was always produced with gold nibs indicates that this new technology was reserved for top quality writing implements.

Fountain pen nib

But the amazing innovation was the ink feeding system, not the reservoir. The basic problem with earlier versions was uneven ink flow. Even ink flow was only able to be achieved with the introduction of an ink feeder incorporating multiple lengthways slots, permitting air to enter the shaft to compensate for the outflowing ink and thus providing the required pressure balance.

Soennecken 577 approx. 1890
Soennecken 577 approx. 1890

But as welcome as the development of the eye-dropper fountain pen was to the user, the associated problems soon became apparent:

The pen could only be filled with the help of a pipette, with which the ink had to be fed into the screw-on barrel drip by drip. Taking the cap on and off put strain on its rim, causing it to crack. Also, grip section and nib were both covered by the cap, with the result that leaking ink meant inky fingers. The nib was not airtight within the cap, allowing the ink to quickly dry on the nib - instant ink flow when pen was put to paper was thus unheard of.

Many of the problems associated with the eye-dropper fountain pen were to be remedied with the next generation of fountain pens: the safety fountain pens. As the name itself implies, the new pens were supposed to provide considerably more reliability in terms of leakage and ink flow difficulties.

The safety fountain pen nib was fixed to a shaft which was able to be retracted using a twist mechanism inside the pen. If the pen needed to be carried, the nib was entirely retracted into the barrel by turning the knob. The cap was then screwed on. To this end, the barrel was threaded at the front end, before the grip section.

Safety fountain pen in cross section
Safety fountain pen in cross section

With the advent of this design, the trickiest problems associated with the eye-dropper type pens were actually remedied:

As ink was always flowing around the nib during transport, it was not able to dry on and the implement was always ready for writing. The ink reservoir was sealed by a seal in the cap. Ink could no longer leak. As the pen was held below the threaded part, it was almost impossible for the ink to contact the fingers. Cracks in the cap were also less common because the screw-on design meant the cap rim was no longer subjected to stress.

But this design, too, had its own particular drawbacks. A pipette was still needed for filling the pen. Frequently, the user would screw the cap on having forgotten to retract the nib, thus damaging it.

Montblanc solved this problem as long ago as the twenties with a silver pin located in the centre of the cap. The worst outcome of the cap being put onto the barrel without first retracting the nib was a bent pin rather than a bent nib. However, this development only worked the first time round. Once the silver pin sustained damage the nib was again in jeopardy. From the mid thirties onwards, Kaweco also made use of a silver pin in high quality safety fountain pens (the 'Special' series).

'Merkurit 810' - safety fountain pen, approx. 1925
"Merkurit 810" - safety fountain pen, approx. 1925

Unfortunately the pen was usually not as well sealed as the name would suggest. After a few years of use the mechanism's cork seal began to fail and ink was able to leak - something which every collector will probably have experienced after having rinsed out a safety fountain pen.

The seal problem took many years to solve, although the awkward business of filling the pen using a pipette was remedied much earlier.

The next article describes the development of the self-filling pen.

Martin Lehmann