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Do you believe in magic? Real magic? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who created Sherlock Holmes, did. His friend Harry Houdini, perhaps the greatest magician of all time, didn’t. This is a tale of how some pen companies tried to perform magic, and what happened to them.
During World War I, several companies produced fountain pens that made their own ink. They were known variously as ink-pellet or ink-tablet pens, from the way they made ink: they were eyedropper fillers; a compartment at the back end of the barrel held pellets of dried ink, and one of these pellets plus a barrel full of water equaled a barrel full of ink. Soldiers also called them trench pens, because they were widely used in the trenches “over there.” (Carrying bottled ink was difficult in any case, and in some units it was forbidden because of the danger from shattered glass should a stray bullet strike the bottle in a soldier’s pack.) Shown below are pellet pens made by the Bicks Ink Company of Chicago, Illinois (U.S. Patent No 1,109,033), and by Mabie Todd & Company, of New York City (U.S. Patent No 1,290,545).
(For those who, like me, find the histories of individual pens interesting, the Swan pen is engraved Alfred Abelson 6–4–18. I researched Alfred’s history, and you can read what I found in “Personalized Pens: History in Your Hand.”)
While the pens described in the previous section were practical and efficient in serving a real need, they seem not to have lasted long once the war was over. After the war, with the increasing pace of life, someone got the bright idea that it would be cool to produce a pen that made its own ink as did the wartime pellet pens — but it wasn’t enough to make ink for one ordinary filling; the pen should to be able to make ink for months.
There were quite a few attempts to create a magic ink-making pen; some made it off the drawing board, others didn’t. The first four I shall cover in this article all actually made it to production. One of the earliest was the brainchild of Arthur Winter, who received a sheaf of U.S. patents for various ink-making pen designs using pellets, powder, and possibly liquid ink concentrate. Winter and two others founded the Dictator Fountain Pen Company, Inc., in New York City to produce Winter’s pen. Perhaps ironically, the patent that comes closest to the design as actually built was British Patent No 178,406, issued to Winter on October 19, 1922. (In this patent, Winter identified himself as the assignee of John David Turner, who would therefore have been the actual inventor.) The patent does not make it clear what form the concentrate took in actual use, but an article that appeared in several trade publications in the weeks before the 1921 convention of the National Association of Stationers and Manufacturers, contained the following explanation:
The Dictator Fountain Pen Co., of the Canadian-Pacific Building, Madison avenue [sic], New York, announces that … representatives of the company will be on hand … displaying its Dictator pen and the Dictator pencil.…
Dictator Concentrated Ink, with which the pen is filled, is not an ink tablet, or ink stick, but a highly concentrated ink paste, free from sediment and readily soluble. The company reports that one drop of it makes a perfect writing fluid without the necessity of shaking or waiting for it to dissolve.
As shown in the patent drawing below, Turner’s invention consisted of a sac-filling pen with an interior chamber for the ink concentrate, and a valve that would release a metered amount of the concentrate when the sac was squeezed and then released to suck in a load of water. The valve normally being closed, its shaft was hollow to allow the mixed ink to pass through to the pen’s feed in something of the same manner as the Snorkel tube in the Sheaffer Snorkel of the 1950s. The patent describes using a wire or a thin sliver of celluloid to create a capillary passage running the length of the shaft.
U.S. records of Dictator do not appear to continue past the end of 1923, from which it can be inferred that the pen design was a failure.
Next, let us look at a pen that came from the Inkpak Manufacturing Company. This pen was the invention of one Frank Furedy of New York City, who received its U.S. Patent No 1,880,128, issued on September 27, 1932. Furedy held a few earlier patents for various forms of mechanical pencils.
On the surface, Furedy’s design looks excellent. Instead of a normal feed, the pen has a feed with a deep, lengthwise slot cut into it. The slot is open to the outside of the pen, and the user slides a replaceable “ink stick” into it. The ink stick, analogous to a modern cartridge, is a metal tube (callout 9 in Figure 2, shown separately as Figure 4), perforated along the side that faces toward the nib, containing compressed powdered ink. The user then fills the pen with water. When the water in the pen contacts the powdered ink, it dissolves some of the powder, creating liquid ink on the spot.
The pens, too, looked good. Severale of Furedy’s pencil patents featured a sloped crown on the cap. One of those patents (U.S. Patent No 1,664,166) specifically cited the inclined surface as a decorative element, and Inkpak applied that same slashed look to the pens.
Did the pens work? Sort of, apparently, but not well enough that Inkpak continued producing them. Not many years passed before Inkpak was selling ordinary lever fillers, with nothing at all to distinguish them except the rakish slash on the cap.
A few years after Inkpak got off the ground, another genius came up with a variation on the same idea. On May 10, 1938, this version earned U.S. Patent No 2,116,919 for Eugene K. Werner of New York City. Werner held two earlier patents for pens with large recesses carved out of the feed channels to hold sticks of compressed powdered ink, but this one was different. Werner assigned the patent to Francis Werner and Anton Enz, who had, probably based on Eugene’s earlier patents, founded the Water Pen Company some time previously. The design is best illustrated by the isometric drawing that Werner included in his patent.
The gripping section screws into a collar that carries the sac and is attached to the open end of the pen’s barrel. The section holds the nib (not shown) and the feed. There is a hole in the back end of the feed, and there is a slot by which that hole, drilled quite deeply, communicates with the feed channels. Between the feed and the section in the drawing is a stick of compressed powdered ink that the user inserted into the hole in the feed before screwing the section assembly into the threaded collar. As water flowed down the length of the feed, it came into contact with the dried ink inside the feed, dissolving enough to create liquid ink. Shown here is a Water desk pen.
Did Werner’s pen work? Again, apparently it sort of worked, but before very long Water pens had ordinary feeds and were just like countless other third-tier lever fillers. Interestingly, they still bore Werner’s patent number even though they did not embody its features.
Looking over the shoulder of yet another inventor, we find the papers for U.S. Patent No 2,123,427, which was awarded to Russell B. Kingman of Orange, New Jersey, on July 12, 1938. This was actually Kingman’s fourth in a series of related patents, and it covered the exact design introduced in 1935 by Joseph Wustman’s newly formed Camel Pen Company of Orange, New Jersey.
Kingman took an approach opposite to that of Furedy and Wermer; his supply of compressed powdered ink was held at the back end of the pen, so that it would mix with water when the pen was held nib upward, as when being carried in a pocket. Water standing adjacent to the dried ink would dissolve some of the ink to create liquid ink. It would also partially dissolve a little more, which would remain in a “moist and pasty” state in a small recess at the base of the ink chamber. A tiny ball would fall toward the forward end of the pen when the user began writing, blocking the passage between the ink chamber and the reservoir to retain the partially dissolved portion of ink until the next time the pen was inverted.
Being at the back of the pen, the ink chamber was quite large, and Kingman intended that the cake of dry ink that it contained should supply writing for months on end. The chamber was able to slide back and forth in the barrel, and it formed, in essence, the button of a button-filling pen. At its interior end was a nipple to receive one end of a tubular sac open at both ends, while the sac’s other end was attached to the gripping section in the usual manner. The ink supply came attached to a cuplike button that screwed into the exposed end of the ink chamber, and the whole was covered by a blind cap to prevent inadvertent operation of the filler. Illustrated here are a very attractive Camel pen from the top of the company’s range and a lesser, midrange model.
Now comes the giant-killer question: did Kingman’s pens work? Reports from the time said that the writing was heavy and muddy immediately after recharging with a new ink cake and rather watery as the time neared for the next recharge. On the whole, it appears, Camels didn’t work any better than Inkpak or Water pens, and Camel soon modified its pens to replace the ink cartridge with a celluloid button that took up the space where the cartridge had been, converting the pens to ordinary button fillers.
Before the calendar turned to 1939, Camel had failed, and some of its assets had been sold to the Newark Pen Company, which sold ordinary lever fillers bearing the Camel trademark. It is not clear whether Newark had already existed when Camel was founded; some documents suggest that Wustman created Newark as a phoenix from the ashes of Camel.
When all is said and done, it seems that none of the postwar magic ink-making pens was able to shoulder the legacy of the trench pens. Now, do you believe in magic? Or were the inventors of the interwar period just using smoke and mirrors to gain sales?
There was another idea, however, that might have worked. Conceptually, it was essentially the same as Turner’s design for Dictator, but to my eye the implementation looks more sound. In Germany, Eugen Wetzel invented a pen having a container of liquid ink concentrate that was also a piston of sorts. His U.S. Patent No 2,108,911, issued on February 22, 1938, describes several implementations of his invention; the most practical one is illustrated below.
In this design, two pistons (callouts 25 and 26 in the drawing) are mounted on the same piston rod so that they move together. The space between them is filled with the ink concentrate by withdrawing piston 25 out of the back end of the pen to expose the space for filling. There is a groove running around the barrel (callout 27). When the pistons are extended all the way forward, piston 26 passes the groove as shown in the figure, and concentrate can flow into the groove. As the pistons are retracted to fill the pen with water, piston 26 passes the groove and exposes it to the space where the water will be contained, allowing the two liquids to mix.
Nikolaus Simkovits, of Vienna, Germany, came up with a similar design. He received U.S. Patent No 2,209,042 for it on July 23, 1940, and assigned the rights to Eugen Wetzel.
In one version of Simkovits’ design, shown above, the piston rod extended all the way through the doubled piston. The doubled piston itself held in place a removable container that could be refilled or replaced. The piston rod featured a recess (callout 14) into which the concentrate would flow; in other respects, Simkovits’ pen was essentially similar to Wetzel’s.
These designs seem more likely to have worked than Turner’s, primarily because the larger space for the concentrate implies a less pasty consistency thereof. This in turn implies that the concentrate would go into solution more easily. So far as I know, however, neither made it into production.
When America went to war in 1941, there were no ink-making pens on the market; all of them had faded into a mostly well-deserved oblivion. On February 4, 1942, Solomon M. Sager applied for a patent for a new ink maker, and he received U.S. Patent No 2,325,550) on July 27, 1943. The end result was the Graphomatic Inkmaker Pen:
The Inkmaker was actually a very clever design. Sager’s patent shows how it worked:
For its ink supply, it used a cartridge that was a short length of plastic tubing containing the dried ink (callout 19). The filling system comprised one cartridge and a plug that screwed into the back end of the barrel and sealed with an elastomer washer. The plug had a socket that held the cartridge in the middle of the barrel. The threads on the sides of the plug were cut away to provide a flat surface; when the plug was unscrewed about three turns, air could pass along its length between the barrel and the outside. To fill the pen, the user unscrewed the plug the requisite amount and immersed the pen almost fully into a glass (or other container) of water. Atmospheric pressure would force water into the pen, with the air inside passing to the outside along the plug. When the pen was full, the user screwed the plug down tightly and cleaned off the water.
Did it work? To some extent, yes. Whether it worked well enough to be really useful is not documented. The Graphomatic Corporation continued in operation at least until 1951, when it appeared on page 196 of the Greater Chicago and Surrounding Territories Business Classified Directory.
Today, Camel pens are fairly well known but are considered collectible only by a minority of collectors. Inkpak, Water, Graphomatic, and others like them have been largely forgotten in the mists of time, although a very small number of collectors do seek them out. Trench pens, as a class, are much better known and more popular than any of the magic ink-making pens from the 1930s and ’40s.
Quoted from Geyer’s Stationer, Vol. 72 No 1822, October 26, 1921, p. 13.
Vienna is, of course, in Austria. However, this U.S. patent was applied for on May 18, 1938, two months after the March 12 Anschluß (“joining,” also spelled Anschluss) in which Adolf Hitler unilaterally annexed Austria to create a “Greater German Reich” after having compelled Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg to resign. It is interesting to note that the isolationist U.S., ostensibly uninterested in the affairs of Europe, recognized this act as legitimate.
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