Filling System Histories: Cartridge Pens

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PEN WORLD MagazineThis article first appeared in the December 2012 issue of PEN WORLD magazine.

Fountain pens need ink. This basic requirement ties every fountain pen to a bottle — or to some other supply of the vital fluid. Even in the 19th century, pen makers were seeking that other ink supply, one that could be more convenient and, with luck, less messy than partially disassembling a pen to fill it with an eyedropper.

Baby Steps

First on the scene with a workable solution was the Eagle Pencil Company, which in about 1890 introduced a cartridge-filling pen invented by Claes William Boman (U.S. Patent No 426,758) and shown here.

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Boman’s pen was simplicity itself: the section was a stepped metal tube into whose smaller end were mounted an untipped brass nib and a hard rubber feed, with a tubular rubber plug inserted from the larger end. The cartridge itself was a plain glass tube closed at one end. To install a cartridge, the user removed the barrel (another metal tube that slid onto the larger part of the section and was held by friction), removed the seal from the open end of a new cartridge, and fitted the new cartridge onto the exposed end of the rubber plug in the section. These pens were not elegantly built, but they worked. And Eagle did jazz them up somewhat: the pen above features an attractive cable design on its cap and barrel, and the cap and barrel of the pen below are hexagonal.

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Adolescence

The public appears to have been content with the newfound convenience of the self-filling pens that began appearing right around the turn of the century, and cartridge-pen development languished until the Roaring Twenties. In November of 1921, engineer Robert T. Pollock founded the Pollock Pen Company and applied for a patent on his design for a cartridge pen. Pollock’s company was backed by some of the major movers and shakers of the time, including King Gillette, president of the Gillette Safety Razor Company, and Louis K. Liggett, president of the United Drug Company (Rexall). U.S. Patent No 1,658,940 finally came through in early 1928.

Pollock’s John Hancock Cartridge Pen used a cartridge made of copper and designed to thread onto a nipple at the distal end of the section. A piercing device similar to a modern cartridge pen’s piercing tube broke the cartridge’s seal when the cartridge was installed. Section and barrel were made as a single piece, and a nib unit comprising nib, feed, and a hard rubber sleeve was secured in place by a small hard rubber pin on the bottom of the section (U.S. Patent No 1,574,919, by Julian H. Murdock). Shown here is a men’s pen, together with a stamped metal case containing cartridges for it. Cartridges were said to last up to two months, and a cartridge case containing three cartridges was sold with each pen, thereby affording the user several months’ freedom from the need to find a new ink supply. There was also a ringtop version, which was shorter in the body, and shorter cartridges were made for it.

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Cartridge case

Early advertising and other documents of the time suggest that the John Hancock Cartridge Pen was on the market before the end of 1922 and may have lasted as late as 1931. Early pens had a “jade” ring at the blind-cap joint, while later production carried red there. They were sold regionally, in the Northeastern United States, and also in some overseas markets; the pen shown here was packaged for sale in England and priced at 17/6 (approximately $4.38 at the time).

The Teenage Years

In 1936, JiF-Waterman, the French subsidiary of L. E. Waterman, began selling U.S.-made cartridge pens of a new design. These pens were not sold in the U.S.A., and it is possible that the parent company was using France as a test market for them. Like Eagle’s cartridge pens, the new Watermans used glass cartridges; but the cartridges were fitted with a molded neck flange designed to snap positively into a rubber boot at the distal end of the section. Except for their lack of a lever and a somewhat more European look to the furniture, these pens were virtually identical to then-current Waterman models such as the Nos 3, 3V, 32, 92, and 92V.

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Glass cartridge
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World War II brought sales of Waterman’s cartridge pens to a halt; and when production resumed after the war, it was with new postwar styling, of which the most notable feature was the military clip design that had carried Waterman through since the second version of the Hundred Year Pen in 1940. Like the John Hancock pen, Waterman’s cartridge designs featured a barrel/blind cap arrangement to ensure proper cartridge alignment during installation. Shown here is a Duo 7 from shortly after the war. This pen features a “throwback” nib with a keyhole-shaped breather hole. The cartridge is identical to the one from before the war except that it’s about half an inch longer.

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Waterman’s styling soon became more aggressively modern, producing pens like the ones illustrated below, a top-line model and an economy pen for which the Commando name was resurrected:

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Young Adulthood

In 1953, Waterman eclipsed its earlier pens entirely when it introduced the first widely successful modern cartridge-filling fountain pen, Waterman’s C/F (U.S. Patents Nos 2,802,448 and 2,987,044, both by Donald H. Young).

With its plastic cartridges, the C/F changed forever the way the world uses fountain pens; but as revolutionary and successful as it was, the C/F was not first to the market. That honor goes to the LUS Atomica, a remarkably cheap but also remarkably well designed and reliable Italian pen, which beat the C/F by about a year. The Atomica was an excellent pen, and many thousands were sold of the original version and its improved successors. But LUS was a regional company and could not compete with Waterman’s global clout; and as the market shook out, it was the C/F that came out on top.

The design of the C/F was thoroughly modern: sleek and slender in profile, dramatically sculptured in black plastic set with shiny metal (U.S. Patent No D178,033). In retrospect, the pen’s advanced styling (by famed automotive designer Harley J. Earl) seems to have been about half a decade ahead of its time. But L. E. Waterman was in its death throes; and most U.S. C/F pens were economy models while the French versions, produced and distributed by JiF-Waterman, were largely upscale metal-bodied pens. Shown here are an original C/F and a mid-line pen.

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Maturity

With the demise of L. E. Waterman, U. S. sales of the C/F came to an end. JiF-Waterman inherited the overall mantle of the Waterman name, and the C/F continued to flourish in Europe well into the 1980s. But in America a manufacturer with more clout was required, and that manufacturer was Parker, which in 1960 introduced the Parker 45. Sheaffer had been there earlier, introducing its Skripsert cartridge pens in 1957, but the Parker 45 was the pen that really established the field.

In 1957, Parker had purchased the moribund Eversharp company, gaining access to Eversharp’s engineering staff and projects. The crown jewel of the purchase, it might be said, was the pen that became the $5.00 gold-nibbed Parker 45 (U.S. Patents Nos 3,134,362, 3,154,055, and 3,185,135, all by Homer T. Green). Shown below is a typical 45.

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The cartridge shown here, patented in 1967 (U.S. Patent No 3,332,400), is like the original Parker cartridge except for one major improvement: at the distal end of the reservoir is a semi-separated compartment that holds a small amount of ink. Under normal usage, this compartment, which Parker dubbed a “Tap-Tank,” holds its ink separate from that in the main reservoir of the cartridge. When the pen runs dry, flicking the Tap-Tank with a finger releases the extra ink, and the user can continue to write until he or she is able to refill the pen (e.g., after the meeting has finished).

As shown above, the 45’s cartridge system was little different from that in earlier cartridge pens; but Parker’s true innovation in filling systems was not the cartridge. It was the converter that was included in the patents. This converter, a twist-action piston type, had the same form factor as Parker cartridges and provided a way for the pen’s owner to use bottled ink as easily as cartridges, simply by removing a cartridge and installing the converter in its place.

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Today and Tomorrow

Parker had made a game-changing play with the 45 and its accompanying cartridge/converter system. Not long thereafter, Sheaffer and Waterman introduced their own converters, both compact units essentially the same sizes as the cartridges they were intended to replace. Sheaffer’s converter, however, had a short protrusion on the back and did not fit into the company’s cartridge pens. It took another generation of models before Sheaffer’s pens could use cartridges and converters interchangeably. Shown here are a Sheaffer Stylist II and a Waterman C/F with their respective converters.

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The next major step was the introduction of commodity cartridges (in two sizes, long and short) and converters. These new components established a de facto International standard. Parker stayed with its own system. Waterman, no longer slow to see which way the wind was blowing, abandoned its proprietary C/F cartridge and converter but didn’t go quite all the way, designing its pens to accept short or long cartridges but not taking into account the extra 18" length of the standard converter; thus, Waterman pens still use a proprietary converter. Like Parker, Sheaffer stuck with its own system but modernized by designing the Targa and succeeding generation of pens to accept a twist-action piston converter as well as the earlier squeeze type.

Soon, commodity nib units began appearing that were designed to mate with the International standard. With a standardized form factor to work to, any maker could build a pen, knowing in advance that its ink supply — from reservoir to nib tip — was a done deal. The result was, and still is, a virtual flood of new and exciting pens of fine quality. Shown here are two new American-made pens, a Bexley Batavia and an Edison Herald, with International cartridges and converter.

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The information in this article is as accurate as possible, but you should not take it as absolutely authoritative or complete. If you have additions or corrections to this page, please consider sharing them with us to improve the accuracy of our information.

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