Design Features: What Were They Thinking?

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PEN WORLD MagazineThis article is a revised and expanded version of one that first appeared in the December 2014 issue of PEN WORLD magazine.

The goal of all good inventors is to make the product, whatever it might be, more reliable and more convenient to use than what was formerly required to accomplish the task at hand. From Petrache Poenaru’s 1827 “plume sans fin portative s’alimentant d’encre d’elle même” (portable pen without end, feeding itself with ink by itself), to the 2013 release of Montblanc’s piston-filling retractable “Heritage 1912” safety pen, most fountain pen designs of the past couple of centuries have achieved this goal to some extent.

But not all of them. There have been many pens that badly missed the mark, such as the rash of “water” pens that appeared in the 1930s. This article looks at two such goofs, neither of which came from an obscure manufacturer dating back to the horse and buggy era. These are relatively recent pens from two industry titans.

Not Pelikan’s Level Best

The Pelikan Level L 65, launched in 1996 as a student pen, gained an “adult” sibling, the Level L 5, a year later. Although blessed with modern good looks and a very large ink capacity, Level pens have some serious design issues that led to the line’s early demise. Pelikan tipped the Level out of its catalog in 2001, but it took another five years for the company to exhaust its stock of the pens.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

With its edgily minimalist modern styling and nine trim variations, the L 5 is attractive, and it even writes well. It handles nicely if you don’t want to post the cap, which the design doesn’t allow anyway, and if you like metal sections.

Pen in standFilling the Level requires a special stand that came with the pen. When you’re not using it, the pen can rest in the stand with its nib uppermost. To fill the pen, remove it from the stand. Turn the nib downward and rotate the collar on the back end of the barrel to line up the triangular mark on the collar with the white dot on the barrel. This action opens a valve at that end of the pen and closes a valve farther down inside the pen to keep it from leaking. Next, pick the stand up, invert it and place it solidly on top of the pen.

Then, with the bottom of the stand facing upward, press firmly on the slightly dome-shaped bottom of the special plastic ink bottle that is contained within the stand, and release. Continue pumping in this manner until the pen is filled. (It has a translucent barrel so that you can see the ink supply.)

Filling the pen

To complete the operation, remove the stand from the pen and set it down, then rotate the collar on the pen the other way to line up the round mark on the collar with the dot on the barrel. This closes the first valve and opens the second, and the pen is now ready for use.

inkbottleWhat do you do when the Level’s special inkbottle is empty? If you can find a dealer who still has some in stock, you can buy a replacement. It won’t be cheap. If your dealer is sold out, you can refill the special bottle from an ordinary bottle. (Pelikan seems not to have mentioned this ability in its literature.) You might want to do this anyway, as the Level ink was available only in blue and black.

Even that extra-large ink capacity is not without its oddities. The Level keeps its ink in a “writing reservoir” and a “storage reservoir.” When the ink supply in the writing reservoir runs out, you have to operate the valve collar at the back end of the barrel, with the pen pointed nib downward, to allow ink to run from the storage reservoir into the writing reservoir. Don’t forget to turn the collar back to the closed position when you’re done.

If you like to treat your pens to good hygiene, you flush them periodically. There's no flushing Level pens, however, because of the valve between the two reservoirs. To clean one, you have to disassemble it. Because the filling valve assembly is secured in the barrel by the white dot on one side of the barrel and an unpainted dot on the opposite side, disassembly requires you to press inward on both dots at the same time as you push the collar away from the barrel. There will be cosmetic damage, and you risk cracking the barrel if the two dots are not clear of the holes in the barrel.

What were they thinking?

Sheaffer’s Intriguing Experiment

In 2000, Sheaffer introduced the Intrigue, a modernized pen fitted with the company’s classic Inlaid Nib. They should have stopped right there, but they didn’t. They modified the nib by straightening out the famous upswept nose that made the Inlaid Nib write so wonderfully, with the result that the Intrigue’s nib writes like a nail. It can be tuned to write better, of course, but it can’t be made to write like a PFM, Imperial, Legacy or even the lowly Triumph Imperial that sold so well during the 1990s.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

As though retooling the classic nib weren’t enough, Sheaffer gave the Intrigue an assortment of futuristic finishes and a style to match, with a diagonal cap lip that mates against a ridge on the pen’s body so you can cap the pen with the cap facing in only one direction. You have to push the cap on when it’s in approximately the right orientation with the body and then rotate it a little bit back and forth while pushing gently to seat it completely. (If you push firmly, the angle of the lip will force the cap into alignment; but this action will also cause wear on the cap lip and the barrel’s mating angled lip.)

Pen cap

And there’s that filling system. It’s a system that Rube Goldberg would have been proud of. The Intrigue is a cartridge/converter pen, but you can’t replace a cartridge or install a converter by screwing the pen apart in the middle the way you do for almost every other cartridge/converter pen in the world. Instead, you unscrew a knob at the back of the barrel and then pull on it to slide out a flimsy metal tray that’s attached to the knob. The tray doesn’t come all the way out; it stops and hangs there while you insert a cartridge or a converter into it, being careful not to bend it as you do so. Then you slide it back in and screw the knob down again to pierce the cartridge or seat the converter.

Pen and converter

If you’re using cartridges, your pen will now write. But if you’re a converter person, you have to fill the converter. For that, there is a smaller knob, fitted concentrically with the large knob. To operate the converter, you pull on the smaller knob to click it outward as shown in the photo below. This little knob, the finial on the back end of the barrel, is tapered in a continuation of the larger knob’s shape, and it has no knurling or other concession to make grasping it easy. In the outward position, it will operate the converter. When you’ve filled the converter, you push the small knob back into its rest position.

Intrigue knob

There’s one more thing. The converter is special. It fits only the Intrigue, and no other converter will fit in its place. If you have an Intrigue, you might want to consider stocking up on converters while you can still get them, because they do eventually give out.

You can screw the pen apart in the middle so that it can be flushed clean, and Sheaffer actually recommends that you do this periodically. But the threaded joint there is weak, and it’s very easy to cross-thread it, which will crack the barrel. Sheaffer withdrew the Intrigue in 2004, while the Legacy series, introduced in 1995 and fitted with a properly upswept Inlaid Nib, is now selling well into its third generation.

What were they thinking?

Sheaffer and Pelikan are both fine manufacturers, producers of high-quality pens that have stood the test of time for a century or more. How their engineers managed to go down the paths that led to the Intrigue and the Level is a question for which I do not have an answer, but it does make for an interesting look into the minds of pen designers.

Notes:
  1. My own translation, intentionally very literal.


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