by Sara Shay

The Famous Fountain Pen

Jun 15, 2001 2 mins
Data Center

SOMEWHERE AROUND 1883, insurance broker Lewis Edson Waterman invested in a newfangled fountain pen to use at the signing of a major deal. When the pen leaked ink all over the contract, a chagrined Waterman scurried off to find duplicate documents. In the meantime, a competing broker snagged his client.

Waterman’s ire over this incident led him to invent the first leak-proof and therefore commercially viable fountain pen, which he patented in 1884. The key to his success was adding an airhole in the nib and three grooves inside the feed mechanism, which controls the ink flow.

The fountain pen solved the age-old problem of keeping ink moving from pen to page. Both the quill pen and the metal-tipped pen that replaced it required a writer to interrupt his work constantly to dip his nib in ink. Early fountain pens contained internal reservoirs, but filling them and keeping them from leaking proved almost as challenging as frequent dipping. At the turn of the last century, Waterman and rivals George Parker and Walter Sheaffer refined the filling mechanisms as well as the nib tips.

The ballpoint pen was invented around 1895, and after Laszlo Biro perfected it in the 1930s, the comparatively complicated fountain pen fell out of common use. But while the biro, as it became known, was practical, it just wasn’t pretty. The shine of a gold nib and the elegance of a freshly inked signature were not easily forgotten. Thus, the fountain pen now enjoys the status of a fine collectible, sustaining countless websites, magazines and trade shows dedicated to its proliferation.