I love telling stories.
Friends and Fountain Pens
On Saturday, the 9th of May in the year 2008 anno Domini, I had temporarily left this world allowing myself to delve into the metaphysical spheres of my mind. This is definitely my most favourite pursuit. (footnote 1)
Dreams, the past, the future and many of the innumerous present moments invited me to feel joy. It was then when memories about fountain pens arose, which for me means, stories about their making. And as so often, I got infected by my own excitement and one piece of memory shook hands with the next. During a moment of mental rest, I thought absent-minded: “You should write all these things down.”
I call this angel talk, which happens every now and any odd year. Every time, it spurs me on, causing me to leave things behind and turn towards new horizons. After this angel talk, I spent some time in reminiscence. What rekindled the topic were me wondering about the origin of the word fountain pen, which is undoubtedly no new thought for a pen designer.
Deliberating on a fountain, a well spurting out an endless amount of water and comparing it with a fountain pen sounded too far-fetched. The fountain pen is meant to supply a steady flow of ink, steady, in comparison with the quill or an ordinary nib and holder, but still, no. At that time I wondered what people in other countries call it. Perhaps this may shed some light on the matter.
Then life had lured me to other fields of enjoyment. On several occasions, I wished to return to writing. However, I experienced an annoying writer’s block, and absolutely nothing wanted to appear on paper (into the computer, I should say). Just in time, I received a letter with my address, handwritten. What a rare thing in the information age.
When I opened it, I found that the letter was handwritten in ink, written by a long-standing friend
He explained that he intended to write with his fountain pen again for many reasons. Last but not least, for the exercise it provides to the brain. He elaborated: “One has to construct a sentence before writing it down, which requires a brain capacity far greater than when using a word processor.”
Nostalgia touched me, and I cleaned my favourite fountain pen. After several years of resting in a jar with other ‘low level’ pens, in no time, the old faithful returned to service. Even better, the excitement that came with the job inspired me to write again. Where would we go without our friends?
Origin of a Word
Countries with their language based on Latin, call the fountain pen something like stylographe, estilografica and penna stilografica. You recognise the roots of the two Latin words stilus meaning a pointed instrument and graphicum stands for writing implement, which adds up meaning: a pointed writing implement.
In English, the word stylograph is dedicated to a particular ink pen, which, rather than a nib, writes with a hollow, tubular conical point. In German, the fountain pen is called Füllfederhalter, which means fillable-nib-holder, which very much describes what it is. The abbreviated word is Füller meaning filler or something that fills or can be filled.
All the above still does not supply any clues for why the English call it fountain pen. Finally, a friend helped solve this etymological puzzle. As you may know, early fountain pens had inside the barrel a flexible rubber bladder to hold ink. A spring-loaded lever or button protruding the barrel wall was used for flattening of the bladder.
After releasing the lever, the spring would open the bladder again. If at the same time, the nib was dipped into an inkwell, this action would suck an amount of ink into the bladder. After that, if you turn such a fountain pen into a nib-upward-position and compress the lever, the ink will squirt out and up like a fountain. This explains it.
Gathering of Thoughts and Information
Since then, the above mentioned noteworthy conversation has occupied my mind for almost my entire waking time (… until I had completed this introduction). My last fading thought still revolves around writing and fountain pens and prevents me from falling asleep.
And when birds wake me up in the morning, the same topic evokes images, triggering an excitement that puts an end to any attempt of prolonging the sweet, slumberous time of dozing.
Ovidius talks about this type of behaviour when saying: “To wish is of little consequence. To achieve, you must earnestly desire, and this desire must shorten your sleep.” That is what passion feels like.
What stopped me from delving into the job immediately and what supported me in my procrastination, was the thought, that for sure, someone must have written about fountain pens before, they have been around for such a long time. Praise to the internet.
I googled around for almost all weekend, found bits and pieces that people knew about, but so far, I have not discovered any writing about how fountain pens work and why they look like the way they do.
On Monday, I examined my internet harvest, ordered it, wrote comments and wondered about, how I was going to tell you about fountain pens. Browsing through several discussion websites on fountain pen issues, I remembered that people interested in fountain pens are distinctive, they love their pens, they have a relationship with them, and the longer this relationship lasts, the deeper it grows.
In a loving relationship, the worst that can happen is that your loved one turns ill. In our case, it would be a severe malfunction of the fountain pen, which often tightens the bond even stronger.
If maladies are minor, we readily forgive and kindly oversee them and learn to manage and gladly adjust our expectations to the altered situation.
But if, lo and behold, the fountain pen would stop working altogether, we are prepared to bear the often higher charges for repair than the cost of a replacement.
The criteria for preventing this breakdown from occurring, are primarily obtained by selecting a fountain pen of good quality. It does not mean it has to cost a lot, like hundreds or thousands of dollars. Secondly, writers need to be well informed about selection criteria as well as they are skilled in using and maintaining their fountain pen.
About the Shape of Things
Allow me to explain: An iron (ironing clothes) looks like any other iron. If one endeavoured to design another one, most probably, it would end up looking like one. There is a reason for this.
We all know what an iron looks like and all irons fit into one and the same iconographic envelope, the semantics. They all contain the same main features and shapes that tell us that the thing in front of our eyes is an iron. The handle, the body with the metal sole, the dial and the electric cord.
And they are all arranged in the familiar constellation. And so it is with fountain pens. If you ask: “Why this is so?”
What now? I would suggest you start with the next page Components of Fountain Pens. It’s a brief introduction of the individual components. From there, you can follow links to their main articles. And on from there, it’s all systematically arranged … I used to be a teacher.
During my googling in the net, I found one writer in particular, namely Richard C. Conner, who has published excellent papers on fountain pens and ‘other pens’ which I want to mention.
I found two essays on the history of fountain pens. The first is called A History of Pen by Richard, which gives an excellent in-depth report on fountain pens as well as ‘any other pens’. At the time of publishing this page, unfortunately, this paper did not seem to be available any longer. A recent reader (2017) informed me that he discovered a link, (footnote 2).
The second paper is by Mary Bellis, called “A Brief History of Writing”, which is shorter than Richard’s and well worth reading.
Since my work as a fountain pen designer and ingeneer has been performed in Germany, I was not familiar with some of the English terminologies. Richard’s paper called Construction of a Fountain Pen is excellent reading for the technically minded, and on my site, I used his expressions for the components of fountain pens.
There is no need adding any information to Richard’s work and, consequently, my papers focus on the reason for a particular design criterion and the function of components as well as their form giving criteria (Formgestaltung).
For reading on fountain pen inks I recommend again Richard’s paper Fountain Pen Inks and also A Few Thoughts on Fountain Pen Inks (link not valid anymore) by Pendemonium. Both equally triggered some of my thoughts on ink and recalled memories.
I also would like to turn your attention to the Wikipedia information on fountain pen’s history and technology, which even includes events, which occurred in the ‘Rest of the World’ … outside the US of America.
I would like to finish the introduction with quoting a sentence I found on the internet:
“Today, 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.”
With all this in mind: Enjoy reading and discovering
Amadeus W. Penmacher
19 October 2008
1. A reader informed me that Richard C Conner’s paper A History of the Pen is published on the penspotters website. The page of the article has the same link as the website. When you are there (after clicking on the above link), look in the column to the left, under information click on history and the paper will open.
2. Continue reading the introduction to all articles about the feed: The Feed’s Function