From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
The fountain pen was broadcast on the 23rd July 2022. You can listen to the audio here.
Every signature is special. Just ask any autograph collector. It’s why the instruments that are used to sign anything from swooning love letters to historic presidential decrees are so cherished. The instrument of choice is always a fountain pen. A fountain pen has an old-fashioned quality that conveys gravitas and even decency, in a way that the undiscriminating ballpoint pen can never possess. It’s why fountain pens are often passed down as heirlooms, a family relic infused with the character of the one who used it, an almost sacred thing. Living in an age in which we hardly ever put pen to paper, and may sign the most important documents with a digital signature, the fountain pen has become even more special. No wonder they’re seen as status symbols, sold alongside expensive Swiss watches or swanky Italian leather goods.
There were attempts to make a pen with an inbuilt reservoir of ink back in the 900s but the oldest fountain pen still in existence is held at the Museum of Writing at the University of London. It was made in France by the king’s instrument maker, Nicholas Bion, in the 1680s. It’s a logical design with a brass body filled with ink that fed a quill nib attached to its end, the flow of ink moderated thanks to a central screw. Most fountain pens are an evolution of this idea. The nib itself changed from a carved feather quill to a properly fashioned sliver of metal, the premium sort now gold-plated and tipped with an iridium alloy to give a smooth ride on all kinds of writing paper. There were other factors that changed the design. Such as the ink itself, from gluggy mixtures of oil and pigment to today’s smooth soy-based inks. What became important was the way in which the ink was delivered to the nib. Any failures could lead to leaks or blots that might ruin a document.
Which is what happened to a salesman in New York called Lewis Waterman in 1883. Putting his signature to an insurance agreement with a customer, his fountain pen didn’t work. While he went off to find one that did, another clerk came in and sealed the deal, using a pen that did work. It set Waterman on a path to create a pen that was reliable, his innovation being to implement a capillary system with a tiny airhole in the nib which would ensure a steady and stable flow of ink. While it made Waterman’s fortune, other makers introduced other subtleties to differentiate the way their pens worked. With the establishment of rubber plantations in the early 19th century, latex became the perfect material for the flexible and airtight inner reservoir of a fountain pen. Parker used a button on the side of their pens to refill, pumping the ink from an ink pot. Others, like Sheaffer in 1912, introduced a tiny lever that did the same job. But the need to refill from an inkpot was eliminated altogether when plastic ink cartridges were introduced in 1953. The fountain pen remained a school essential well into the 1970s, and great fun when used to flick ink at others. They were the secret agent’s secret weapon in James Bond and other films, used as mobile telephones or armed with acid or hypodermic syringes. But gradually the ballpoint pen won the battle and is now allowed to sign even the most important documents. The fountain pen, however, remains not just a relic from another, more paper-focussed age, but a classic design that gives every signature an extra flourish and a definite touch of class.