In his Deliciae Physico-Mathematicae (1636), German inventor Daniel Schwenter described a pen made from two quills. One quill served as a reservoir for ink inside the other quill. The ink was sealed inside the quill with cork. Ink was squeezed through a small hole to the writing point. Progress in developing a reliable pen was slow, however, into the mid-19th century. That slow pace of progress was due to a very imperfect understanding of the role that air pressure played in the operation of the pens and because most inks were highly corrosive and full of sedimentary inclusions. The Romanian inventor Petrache Poenaru received a French patent for the invention of the first fountain pen with a replacable ink cartridge on May 25, 1827. The design of the pen allowed for smooth writing without unwanted dripping or scratching. Starting in the 1850s there was a steadily accelerating stream of fountain pen patents and pens in production. It was only after three key inventions were in place, however, that the fountain pen became a widely popular writing instrument. Those inventions were the iridium-tipped gold nib, hard rubber, and free-flowing ink.
The first fountain pens making use of all these key ingredients appeared in the 1850s. In the 1870s Duncan MacKinnon, a Canadian living in New York City, and Alonzo T. Cross of Providence, Rhode Island created stylographic pens with a hollow, tubular nib and a wire acting as a valve. Stylographic pens are now used mostly for drafting and technical drawing but were very popular in the decade beginning in 1875. It was in the 1880s that the era of the mass-produced fountain pen finally began. The dominant American producers in this pioneer era were Waterman and Wirt, based in New York City and Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, respectively. Waterman soon outstripped Wirt, along with the many companies that sprang up to fill the new and growing fountain pen market, and remained the market leader up until the early 1920s.
At this time fountain pens were almost all filled by unscrewing a portion of the hollow barrel or holder and inserting the ink by means of an eyedropper. This was a slow and messy system. Additionally, fountain pens tended to leak inside their caps and at the joint where the barrel opened for filling. Now that the materials problems had been overcome and the flow of ink while writing had been regulated, the next problems to be solved were the creation of a simple, convenient self-filler and the problem of leakage. Self-fillers began to come into their own around the turn of the century; the most successful of these was probably the Conklin crescent-filler, followed by A. A. Waterman's twist-filler. The tipping point, however, was the runaway success of Walter A. Sheaffer's lever-filler, introduced in 1912, paralleled by Parker's roughly contemporary button-filler.
Meanwhile many inventors turned their attention to the problem of leakage. Some of the earliest solutions to this problem came in the form of a "safety" pen with a retractable point that allowed the ink reservoir to be corked like a bottle. The most successful of these came from F.C. Brown of the Caw's Pen and Ink Co. and from Morris W. Moore of Boston. In 1907 Waterman began marketing a safety pen of its own that soon became the most widely distributed such pen. For pens with nonretractable nibs, the adoption of screw-on caps with inner caps that sealed around the nib by bearing against the front of the section effectively solved the leakage problem (such pens were also marketed as "safety pens", as with the Parker Jack Knife Safety and the Swan Safety Screw-Cap).
In Europe, the German supplies company which came to be known as Pelikan and was started in 1838, first introduced their pen in 1929, based upon the acquisition of patents for solid-ink fountain pens from the factory of Slavoljub Penkala from Croatia (patented 1907, in mass production since 1911), and the patent of the Hungarian Theodor Kovacs for the modern piston filler by 1925.
The decades that followed saw many technological innovations in the manufacture of fountain pens. Celluloid gradually replaced hard rubber, which enabled production in a much wider range of colors and designs. At the same time, manufacturers experimented with new filling systems. The inter-war period saw the introduction of some of the most notable models, such as the Parker Duofold and Vacumatic, Sheaffer's Lifetime Balance series, and the Pelikan 100.
During the 1940s and 1950s, fountain pens retained their dominance: early ballpoint pens were expensive, prone to leaks and had irregular inkflow, while the fountain pen continued to benefit from the combination of mass production and craftsmanship. This period saw the launch of innovative models such as the Parker 51, the Sheaffer Snorkel and the Eversharp Skyline, while the Esterbrook J series of lever-fill models with interchangeable steel nibs offered inexpensive reliability to the masses.
By the 1960s, refinements in ballpoint pen production gradually ensured its dominance over the fountain pen for casual use. Although cartridge-filler fountain pens are still in common use in France, Germany and the United Kingdom, and are widely used by young students in most private schools in England and at least one private school in Scotland, a few modern manufacturers (especially Montblanc and Pelikan) now depict the fountain pen as a collectible item or a status symbol, rather than an everyday writing tool. Despite this, a majority of modern fountain pen users use fountain pens as their primary writing instruments over ballpoint and rollerball pens for reasons related to writing comfort, expressive penmanship, aesthetics, history and heritage.
The modern fountain pen nib may be traced back to the original iridium-tipped gold dip pen nibs of the 1830s. Today, nibs are usually made of stainless steel or gold, with the most popular gold content being 14 karat and 18 karat. Gold is considered the optimum metal for its flexibility and its resistance to corrosion, though gold's corrosion resistance is less of an issue than in the past due to better stainless steel alloys and less corrosive inks. Gold nibs are tipped with a hard, wear-resistant alloy that typically uses metals from the platinum group. The tipping material is often called "iridium," but there are few if any penmakers that still use tipping alloys containing the metal. Steel nibs may also have harder tips; those with un-tipped steel points will wear more rapidly due to abrasion by the paper.
The nib usually has one slit cut down its center, to convey the ink down the nib by capillary action, as well as a "breather hole" of varying shape to promote the exchange of air for ink in the pen's reservoir. The breather hole also acts as a stress relieving point, preventing the nib from cracking longitudinally from the end of the slit from repeated flexing during use. The whole nib narrows to a point where the ink is transferred to the paper. Broad calligraphy pens may have several slits in the nib to increase ink flow and help distribute it evenly across the broad point. Nibs divided into three 'tines' are commonly known as 'music' nibs, as their line which can be varied from broad to fine is suited for writing musical scores.
Although the most common nibs end in a round point of various sizes (fine, medium, broad), various other nib shapes are available. Examples of this are oblique, reverse oblique, stub, italic and 360 degree nibs.
Fountain pens dating from the first half of the 20th century are more likely to have flexible nibs, suited to the favored handwriting styles of the period (eg: Copperplate and Spencerian Script). By the 1940s, writing preferences had shifted towards stiffer nibs that could withstand the greater pressure required for writing through copy paper to create duplicate documents. Furthermore, competition between the major pen brands such as Parker and Waterman, and the introduction of lifetime guarantees meant that flexible nibs could no longer be supported profitably. In countries where this rivalry was not present to the same degree, for example the UK and Germany, flexible nibs are more common. Nowadays, stiff nibs are the norm as people exchange between fountain pens and other writing modes. These more closely emulate the ballpoint pens modern users are experienced with, but are often described as feeling like "writing with a nail" by those who prefer the feel of a more flexible nib. (Nibs, especially more flexible nibs, can be easily damaged by ballpoint users who write with excessive pressure. Ideally, a fountain pen's nib glides across the paper using the ink as a lubricant, and requires no pressure.)
An apparent common denominator of good quality nibs—as long as they have been used appropriately—is that they are long lasting, often lasting longer than the lifetime of the original owner. Many vintage pens with decades-old nibs can still be used today.
Other Styles of Nibs - Other styles of fountain pen nibs include Hooded Nibs (Examples of hooded nibs are Parker 51, Parker 61, or the current (2007) Parker 100, Hero 329), Inlaid Nibs (e.g., Sheaffer Targa or Valor) or Integral Nib (Parker T-1), which may also be ground to have different writing characteristics.
The reservoirs of the earliest fountain pens were mostly filled by eyedropper. This was a relatively awkward and messy process: consequently very few eyedropper-filling pens are made today. However, the absence of complicated mechanisms meant that an eyedropper-filler could hold much more ink than could a self-filling pen of comparable size.
After the eyedropper-filler era, came the first generation of mass-produced self-fillers, almost all using a rubber sac to hold the ink. The sac was compressed and then released by various mechanisms to fill the pen.
The Conklin crescent filler, introduced c. 1901, was one of the first mass-produced self-filling pen designs. The crescent filling system employs an arch-shaped crescent attached to a rigid metal pressure bar, with the crescent portion protruding from the pen through a slot and the pressure bar inside the barrel. A second component, a C-shaped hard rubber ring, is located between the crescent and the barrel. Ordinarily, the ring blocks the crescent from pushing down. To fill the pen, one simply turns the ring around the barrel until the crescent matches up to the hole in the ring, allowing one to push down the crescent and squeeze the internal sac.
Following the crescent filler came a series of systems of increasing complexity, reaching their apogee in the Sheaffer Snorkel, introduced in 1953. With the advent of the modern plastic ink cartridge in the early 1950s, though, most of these systems were phased out in favour of convenience (but reduced capacity). Today, most pens use either a piston filler or a cartridge; many pens can use a converter, a device which has the same fitting as the pen's cartridge, but has a filling mechanism and a reservoir attached to it. This enables a pen to either fill from cartridges, or from a bottle of ink.
Screw-mechanism piston-fillers were made as early as the 1820s, but the mechanism's modern popularity begins with the original Pelikan of 1929, based upon a Croatian patent. The basic idea is simple: turn a knob at the end of the pen, and a screw mechanism draws a piston up the barrel, sucking in ink. While the capacity of these pens was less than that of the better sac systems and eyedropper pens, they were easier to fill. Their limited capacity is due to size of the piston unit: some of the earlier models had to dedicate as much as half of the pen length to the mechanism. The advent of telescoping pistons has improved this.
The Touchdown Filler was introduced by Sheaffer in 1949. It was advertised as an “Exclusive Pneumatic Down-stroke Filler.” To fill it, a knob at the end of the barrel is unscrewed and the attached plunger is drawn out to its full length. The nib is immersed in ink, the plunger is pushed in, compressing and then releasing the ink sac by means of air pressure. The nib is kept in the ink for approximately 10 seconds to allow the reservoir to fill. A capillary filling system was introduced by Parker in 1956. There were no moving parts: the ink reservoir within the barrel was open at the upper end, but contained a tightly rolled length of slotted, flexible plastic. To fill, the barrel was unscrewed, the exposed open end of the reservoir was placed in ink and the interstices of the plastic sheet and slots initiated capillary action, drawing up and retaining the ink. The outside of the reservoir was coated with a repellent compound which released excess ink as it was withdrawn. Ink was transferred through a further capillary tube to the nib. No method of flushing the device was offered, and because of problems from clogging with dried and hardened ink production was eventually stopped.
Around the turn of the 21st Century, Pelikan introduced a filling system involving a valve in the blind end of the pen, which mates with a specially designed ink bottle. Thus docked, ink is then squeezed into the pen barrel (which, lacking any mechanism other than the valve itself, has nearly the capacity of an eyedropper-fill pen of the same size). This system has so far shown up only in their "Level" line, and seems to have been less than a complete success commercially.
Many fountain pen manufacturers have at various times developed their own proprietary cartridges, for example Parker, Lamy, Sheaffer, Cross, and Namiki. Fountain pens from Aurora, Hero, Duke and Uranus accept the same cartridges and converters that Parker uses and vice versa (Lamy cartridges, though not officially, are known to interchange with Parker cartridges also). Cartridges of Aurora are slightly different from cartridges by Parker. Hero, Duke and Uranus have made few fountain pens that take international cartridges. Corresponding converters to be used instead of such proprietary cartridges are usually made by the same company that made the fountain pen itself. Some very compact fountain pens accept only proprietary cartridges made by the same company that made that pen, for example Sheaffer Agio Compact and Sheaffer Prelude Compact. It is not possible to use a converter in them at all. In such pens the only practical way to use another brand of ink is to fill empty cartridges with bottled ink using a syringe.
Fountain pen cartridges are closed by a small ball of plastic, held inside the ink exit hole by glue or by a very thin layer of plastic. When the cartridge is pressed into the pen, a small pin pushes in the ball, which falls inside the cartridge.
While cartridges are mess free and more convenient to refill on the go than bottle filling, converter and filling systems are still sold. Non-cartridge filling systems tend to be slightly more economical in the long run since ink is generally less expensive in bottles than in cartridges. Advocates of bottle-based filling systems also cite less waste of plastic for the environment, a wider selection of inks, easier cleaning of pens (as drawing the ink in through the nib helps dissolve old ink), and the ability to check and refill inks at any time.
Despite the perceived heightened prices in the modern niche, good quality steel and gold pens are available inexpensively today, particularly in Europe and China, and there are even some "disposable" fountain pens available. There are many fountain pen users around the world, even today. The main reasons people seek fountain pens in recent times are for effortless writing and comfort (some sufferers of arthritis are unable to use ballpoint pens, but can use fountain pens), expressive penmanship and calligraphy, longevity (fountain pens are known to last several lifetimes, whereas most ballpoints and all of their refills are disposable), professional art/design, their wider range of available ink colours, recreational collecting (history and heritage), and academic benefits. Many users also mention that fountain pens retain a sense of timeless elegance, personalization and sentimentality that computers and ballpoint pens seem to lack, and often state that once they start using fountain pens, ballpoints become awkward to use due to the extra motor effort needed and lack of expressiveness.
Fountain pens have also always been prized as works of art. Ornate pens are sometimes made of precious metals and jewels with cloisonné designs; others are inlaid with lacquer designs in a process known as maki-e. An avid community of pen enthusiasts collect and use antique and modern pens and also collect and exchange information about old and modern inks, ink bottles, and inkwells. Collectors often tend to prize being able to actually use the antiques, instead of merely placing them under glass for show.