Always an Ingeneer
At age 5 my Grandmother’s Alarm clock fascinated me; unbendingly intrigued, I had to explore what made it tick, literally and what caused the little mallet to move, in particular, to ring the bells; things that made tones I found magical. There was only one way to find out, I disassembled it. Windup toys, a rooster and a locomotive followed. This happened before I had the lingual skills to ask questions, nor the capacity to understand if anyone had explained.
Music, painting and sculpturing followed with an urge to come out. Hence, apart from music and art lessons, school had no appeal. In 1955, in fourth grade, after years of writing with a dip nib and holder, ein Federhalter, I had my first encounter with a fountain pen. More about that later.
Almost accidentally, I started an apprenticeship as a precision mechanic at age 16, in 1961. How I ended up at university remains a miracle, I am no stranger to the latter.
Studying at the Technical University of Karlsruhe, my field of ingeneering study had a curriculum similar to mechatronics, but with a focus on small appliances such as clocks, telephones, record players, i.e. products up to the size of washing machines. Due to my distinct artistic nature, I spent as much time at the art academy as at the university. Adding a flair for romantics and beauty portrays for you a reasonably accurate picture of me.
In 1970, among six other students, I completed my degree, equivalent to the Bachelor of Ingeneering. My final research paper was on electro-acoustics with the support of my work at the acoustics laboratory of Siemens. I must have done well because they offered me a job, but there was a small company investigating the possibility to develop a “mobile” computer; until then, computers were built into rooms. Following my excited curiosity rather than dull reason, I joined this company, and in 1973, we exhibited the world’s first mobile computer at the Hannover Fair. The CPU (central processing unit) alone was as big as a washing machine.
There is a reason for the spelling of ingeneer
Working in a new field, the forefront, attracted me irresistibly ever since, remaining the main criterion and pull for choosing new employment. I found it exciting to start in a new field with knowing almost nothing and being able to gradually illuminate the dark. This way, I ended up at the pen company with no idea how pens tick but equipped with the unswaying confidence and unyielding drive to work it out.
During the mid-seventies, another aspect concerning the construction of a product entered into my awareness, namely, the central purpose of a product which appeared to be its connection with and usefulness to human beings. This rose my passion for the Bauhaus-code of design and for ergonomics in particular. Being an artistic ingeneer motivated me to add these fields to my repertoire, permanently. Still, it took twenty years, until, in 1990, before I fulfilled my dream and completed my Masters of Arts in Design in Sydney.
My early encounters with fountain pens were brief. In fourth grade, some of us received a Kaweco fountain pen; we all called it that and not ein Füllfederhalter – a fillable nib holder. Being one of the chosen ones made me proud, but it only lasted a short time.
Before, we constantly had inky fingers, now, much pain was caused by the unavoidable thread at the end of the short grip section. Some wrapped a piece of band-aid over it, others wrapped it around their fingers. Together with the tiresome maintenance and often still inky fingers, this outweighed the advantages of the fountain pen, so, like many of us, I returned to the nib and nibholder.
In fifth grade, we could write with anything as long as it was permanent. There was an ink pencil, which was used for writing documents, and of course, there were the biros, which most of us preferred to the fountain pen for reasons of ease of use, reliability, sturdiness and cost.
Over a period of five years, starting in the late seventies, I was employed as a research ingeneer with a manufacturer of writing instruments to set up the research laboratory with the main aim of developing the inner workings of pens, a fountain pen, in particular.
I felt lucky because, at that company, product quality (manufacturing ingeneering) and consumer satisfaction weighed highly on design (shape) decision-making. Lucky because both criteria are included in my personal guidelines for choosing solutions, too. Furthermore, it was one of the house rules that all upper management employees had to write with fountain pens of the company! So for five years I mostly wrote with fountain pens.
As in all my previous jobs, as a research ingeneer, one has hardly any prior knowledge because companies keep the workings of their products secret. With heaps of confidence, I built up a solid information base by analysing the successful competitors in depth. For me, this is like wanting to know how a car engine works, where the name of the manufacturer is irrelevant. After having learned the machinations, I designed a successful fountain pen feed without knowing who was who and what the products were.
In my work, any work, I mostly enjoy pondering deeply on the task before expressing ideas. I dream and fantasise and eventually solutions always arise; they still do, which fills me with innocent joy, every time.
In research, as standard practice, one investigates several ideas in parallel. The hardest task was at the end, once their development had been completed when it was time to select the best. Obviously, there were “learning” solutions, those which didn’t work. Amongst the successful, the easy selection criteria were the technical matters.
However, my demands on my work reach beyond that. The design also had to facilitate the production of a high-quality product and provide the highest user satisfaction. But above all, and in all my decisions, my utmost respect for the users of my products was the most decisive. These three items describe my ethical code as an ingeneer: technical excellence, product honesty and user satisfaction.
In the hierarchy of decision-making, there were people (board of management) above my rank who had no technical knowledge, but they wanted to make the final decision, unavoidably; it was impossible to be debated away. How could they arrive at believing they could make choices about technical matters without technical knowledge, I wondered? I don’t know, but certainly, I didn’t want to leave their choice to chance.
Guaranteeing the upholding of my philosophy, I provided the board with three to four solutions of equal technical standard and a quality measuring up to my principles. Therefore, whichever solution they chose, it was good. Surely, it made things harder for me (more work) because deadlines do not include more than one solution. By now, you know how passionate I am about my principles thus, I walked the extra mile with a knight’s honour.
Furthermore, once the decision had been made, no one would notice if the selected result had “slightly adopted” aspects of my favourite, ideal solution. Anyway, today, nobody cares two hoots about it.
Thirty years later, in 2008, my knowledge of fountain pens had returned to my mind and began to occupy it far too often; if you want to read about it, look here How this Site was initiated. Writing about it, I hoped it would free my mind, so I could delve into other, new adventures. Consequently, here I will tell you my stories about the development of the inner components of a fountain pen.
Amongst ingeneers, we say: “A drawing says more than a thousand words”… and often even more. The ingeneers of most companies I worked for had their favourite pub. Convinced that our scribbles ruined them, the publicans only gave us the right number of coasters with the beer mugs while there were stacks of them on other tables. I would not want to guess how many great ideas found their first manifestation through a few strokes and equations on a soggy coaster.
Therefore, there will be many images, and I endeavour to keep formulas to a minimum.
To Draw a Fine Line
The desire to draw fine, intricate and continuous lines, in particular for writing, had led to writing with a pointy implement which permitted conveying ink (stain) to paper (writable surface) in a controlled fashion. For thousands of years, this desire has not changed. Fountain pens facilitate this process.
My studies of books and patents on fountain pens indicated that principally, their structure has not changed over the last two, three hundred years. My research confirmed this statement to some lesser distance into the past when investigating several older fountain pens as old as the early 1900s. Certainly, without any doubt, I can assure you, it has not much changed since 1980 because that’s when I was involved.
Therefore, I trust that my knowledge gained then is still worthwhile to be passed on as well as for you to know and help in your investigations. It appears, in the small enclave of fountain pens, technology has not progressed much at all, there seems to be no need for change.
People who write with fountain pens are special. Once they have embraced their fountain pen (which may take some time), they remain satisfied with it and remain loyal to their pen even though it may deteriorate in appearance and function. For them, tradition is of high significance. Due to this characteristic of their users, fountain pens belong to one of the few groups of products, of which many are still produced with the intention to last.
If there is no innovative push (one of marketing’s motivations) in this market, products’ performance stagnate or deteriorate. So-called innovation and consumer enticement rely on modifications on styling and colour, finish and material. As long as the market share and sales increase, that’s all that counts. Users have a powerful tool, the market demand. Market = combined number of users. But if they don’t demand, nothing significant changes. How do they demand effectively? In ways that reduce a company’s profit, nothing else works.
Now and then, I meet people, who talk about their fountain pen, and quite often, it is my fountain pen. I hear words of pride and joy. Such moments fill me with gentle, warm happiness. What an uplifting feeling this is. This assures me, I have contributed towards creating a positive feeling of joy in our world. This makes me happy and proud.
My fountain pen has been manufactured and sold since the early eighties. Multiply the number of years by the number of days per year, by 12 hours in a working day in the beginning, later 24 hours a day, every twenty seconds, six pens fall off the production line. It’s a huge number. That’s a lot of happiness.
What you find on this site
The work published here is based on my own (re-) search on the function of fountain pens. The forming of technical components for this fountain pen was enabled through this knowledge, my attitude as a conscientious ingeneer and its continued provision of joy for me. When one does something for long enough, it becomes part of one’s nature, which not only affects the way we work but also the way we live and think.
Occasionally, you may find me mentioning facts, which may sound like divulging company secrets. Far from it. Mechanical ingeneers (and others) can grasp the principles and once they put their minds to those matters they could work them out on their own because this is what I did, being a mechanical ingeneer and a designer.
I would like to finish with a sentence I found on the internet: “Today, a majority of fountain pen users write with fountain pens primarily for reasons related to writing comfort, expressive penmanship, aesthetics, history and heritage.” And I am proud of my contribution toward the upkeep of this tradition.
Above all: Enjoy!
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26 November, 2022 at 1:01 am
Indeed, you must be beloved by the gods of fountain pens. Thank you for the clarity of your writing, reasoning, and illustration.
27 November, 2022 at 7:41 pm
Thanks, John, for your kind words. Even though it was forty years ago, I still remember the sense of miracles in action.
10 March, 2022 at 6:37 am
As a returning fountain pen user, I came across your website while looking for information on the fountain pen feed. I’ve only read a small portion of your website, but I’m impressed by your knowledge, ethics, and passion. Sir Amadeus, I salute you.
A fellow ingeneer
10 March, 2022 at 2:33 pm
Oh, this is one of those comments which spur me to write again. It touches the right spot; hard to believe, there is at least 30% more. Especially, when coming from a fellow ingeneer. 🙂 And since we are talking… if you have any, really any suggestion, let me know. Thank you
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11 March, 2022 at 6:09 am
My main reason for reading you is to learn more about fountain pens. Despite the fact that during my working days, I designed printing cylinders to deliver high-solids thin film ink, I do not believe I am qualified to make any worthwhile suggestions to you.
My thoughts are stirred as I read the chapter on ink. Because I’ve spent time studying dynamic surface tension, I’m thinking about what surface-active agents I’d use; what if I could introduce a small percentage of resin solution, or even use a colloidal system with new nanotechnology to improve the ‘permanence’ of fountain pen ink on paper?
If we still had labs, I could bring all of my samples to you and we could have a working lunch together. Wishful thinking is exactly what it is.
LikeLiked by 1 person
11 March, 2022 at 9:40 am
Wow! Colloidal system! What a good idea. A suggestion: I participate in the Fountain Pen Network [https://www.fountainpennetwork.com/forum/] from where I found much inspiration and support. There you could start a topic in the section about inks, and I am sure that you could inspire a younger person with that idea. Sometimes wishes come true.
28 July, 2021 at 8:13 pm
Hi and thanks for this site and vrry useful information. My curiosity to find out any technical information about pens is completely covered by your information. Thanks a lot.
22 February, 2022 at 7:09 pm
thank you for your comment…
oh wait, there is more in the pipeline. it’s only that other parts of my life have busied me.
11 December, 2020 at 12:01 pm
Wolfgang, here is an extraordinary website full of information, stories and insight. I look forward to slowing working through all the pages.
11 December, 2020 at 1:32 pm
I am glad you like it and also look forward to our discussions.