With our forthcoming auction of Fountain Pens & Writing Equipment just around the corner, I am currently fascinated by the evolution of the pen and how little the design has changed over the past 130 years.

An initial problem was spotted with the fountain pen in the early 1880s when L.E. Waterman was selling life insurance in New York City. This was a very competitive field and all applications had to be signed in ink. On one of these occasions, Waterman met his client for the all-important signing of a very large policy. His pen, however, let him down. Instead of neatly recording the signature, it flooded ink over the document and ruined the application. A hastily prepared duplicate was prepared by Waterman but too late and a rival won the deal.

Waterman, a man of craft, duly took himself away to find a solution to the ink flow problem and decided it could be sorted using the principal of capillary action. Using a penknife, a saw, and a file he constructed a feed that not only allowed the ink to flow to the nib but also allowed an intake of air to control that flow. The same or similar system is used to this day.

The filling of pens developed from eyedroppers, where a pipette of ink was used to drip ink into the body of the pen, to vacuum systems of various styles. Conklin used the crescent fill, where you turn a crescent on the side of the pen and it presses a metal bar onto the sac pushing the air out – on release, a vacuum is created and ink is drawn in.

Similar vacuum systems feature in other brands such as the Parker Vacumatic, which launched in 1932. Parker pens also feature the button fill method, and the lever fill, which is still popular. Later, pre-filled cartridges came along, although these were superseded by the converter, which can be either cartridge or a piston fill that fits like a cartridge – the best of both worlds.

While all this internal change has happened, pen shape has only varied slightly with time and fashion. They were always designed for a purpose and the main shape variation is therefore thickness. We are individuals with individual tastes after all.

Decoration is, of course, a different matter. Colour, pattern and finish create innumerable variations. An interesting example is the Conway Stewart 22 Floral (pictured). This pen bombed when issued and in its time was unloved. Now, it is a rare and desired pen for collectors as so few were issued and they are harder to find. What a pleasing example of an item not being fashionable ultimately making it highly desirable. Fashion is fickle.

If you’re interested in buying or selling at one of our auction of fountain pens, please get in touch with Bill Nelson.