The American Lewis E. Waterman is usually credited with inventing the fountain pen in 1884. However, although Waterman certainly manufactured the first reliable leak-proof fountain pens, there were numerous earlier designs and patents. The oldest known surviving fountain pens date from 1702. They were made by M. Bion for the King of France. Waterman’s pen used capillary action to replace the ink in the rubber sac with air so that the ink flowed smoothly. Another Waterman innovation came in 1905 when the Company was the first to add a clip to the cap of the pen.
In 1889, George Parker, an American schoolteacher, became frustrated with the reliability of pens that he had sold to his students. Parker patented an improved ink feed mechanism, with further improvements in 1891, 1893 and 1894. His final mechanism, called the Lucky Curve became the foundation of the Parker Pen Company’s success. The problem was that pens carried in the pocket retained ink in the feed tube and, when the body’s heat warmed the pen, they leaked. Parker’s pens used capillary action to drain the ink from the feed tube.
The ink reservoir on Waterman’s pen was filled using an eye-dropper. In 1912, Walter Sheaffer, an American jeweller, started manufacturing pens with an inflatable rubber sack fitted into the barrel of the pen so that ink could be drawn up through the nib by raising a lever on the side of the barrel. (A similar mechanism had been used by Conklin in their Crescent Filler pen in which the sac was filled by pressing a crescent which protruded from the side of the barrel.)
During the First World War, the Parker Pen Company was awarded to contract to supply American troops with their unique “trench pen” which converted solid pigment pellets to ink by mixing with water in the barrel of the pen. These pens made the Parker name famous in Europe as well as America.
The 1920s and 30s are considered the Golden Age of the fountain pen. Famous examples from this period include the Parker Duofold which was an oversized, vivid orange pen selling for $7 when most of its competitors were black and sold for $4 or less.The Duofold made Parker the leader in prestige pens. The Duofold was filled by pressing a button at the end of the barrel which caused pressure bars to compress an ink sac. (The Duofold was so named because, originally, the cap at the end of the barrel was interchangeable with a long extension of the barrel.)
In 1924, Sheaffer introduced plastic pen cases in place of the conventional hard rubber and introduced its famous “white dot” symbol. Following its listing on the stock market in 1928, Sheaffer’s market share rose from 3% to 28%.
1924 was also the year in which the original Montblanc Meisterstuck fountain pen was launched by the Simplo-Filler Pen Company. The Company had been formed in Hamburg in 1908 to produce the perfect fountain pen. After the First World War a chain of Montblanc shops was established in Europe. The Meisterstuck pen had a lifetime guarantee and had the number 4810 (the height of Mont Blanc) engraved on the cap or point.
Waterman introduced its famous oversized Patrician fountain pen in 1929.
The Japanese Platinum Pen Company began producing its Maki-e lacquer pens in the early 1930s.
In 1933, Parker introduced the Vacumatic in which a filling system using vacuum pressure replaced the rubber sack.The Vacumatic also introduced the arrow-style clip which became a Parker trademark.
Waterman patented the ink cartridge in 1935.
Until 1941, fountain pens had been promoted on their ability to hold more ink than their competitors. The result was pens with bigger and bigger barrels. In 1941, Parker produced a radically different looking slim pen with a hooded nib, caller the Parker 51 (because it was designed in the Company’s 51st year). It became the best selling pen ever.
Although the first patent for a ball-point pen was issued in 1888 (to an American, John H. Loud), it wasn’t until the 1940’s that the technology of ball-grinding and measuring was sufficiently advanced to allow Hungarian Lazlo Biro to produce a pen which wrote easily on paper. By the early 1950s, ball-point pens had overtaken fountain pens in popularity.
After World War 11, Waterman decided to go down market and the American company went bankrupt. The company was rescued by its French subsidiary which made pens using an ink cartridge.
Platinum ceased production during the War. After the War, the were highly successful in producing rollerball pens but also manufactured a range of leather pens, known as Amazons and the 3776 fountain pen which has been in continuous production since 1976. (Mt Fuji is 3776 metres high.)
Montblanc also ceased production during the War. For several years after the War, it produced pens exclusively for export but, thanks to heavy promotion, since the 1980s has emerged as the premier status symbol pen.
Up to the mid-1920s, pen cases were usually made of hard rubber (which has a distinctive smell, especially if rubbed with the fingers). From the mid-1920s to the Second World War, translucent coloured pens and streamlined, as opposed to cylindrical, pens were made of celluloid (which also has a distinctive smell, like camphor, when moistened).
Prior to the 1930s, all pen manufacturers had plastic made exclusively for their own use; so, 1920s pen can be identified just by looking at the plastic. But during the Depression many manufacturers (with the notable exception of Sheaffer) formed a pool to share plastic stocks. This meant that, for example, exactly the same plastic was used on an expensive Waterman Patrician as on a relatively inexpensive Parker.
Wartime Parker 51s were made of acrylic resin. Postwar pens are usually made of injection-moulded polymers. The use of these materials means that classic pens are susceptible to fading if exposed to bright light and may even be damaged by immersion in plain water.