Filling System Histories: Here’s Mud in Your Eye(dropper)

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PEN WORLD MagazineThis article is a slightly revised version of one that appeared in the February 2012 issue of PEN WORLD magazine.

During the first few decades of fountain pen development, innovation ran rampant as inventors tried to come up with the perfect pen. After the tube tip of the stylographic pen had been effectively supplanted by the nib, there wasn’t much else that could be done with nibs beyond the addition of a breather hole. The proliferation of feed designs, however, would boggle the mind. Some pen companies even explored variations in the shape of the pen body, leading to oddities like the Parker No 47, whose bulbous shape has led collectors today to nickname it the Pregnant Parker.

There’s more. Part of anyone’s criteria for perfection, of course, would have to be the filling system. Before self-filling pens became practical, and indeed for some time thereafter, the eyedropper filler — known then by the retronym “regular” fountain pen to distinguish it from the newfangled self-filling models — reigned supreme.

Theme

The most common eyedropper filler had been around since the earliest years of fountain pens, and it was very simple: the nib and feed were inserted into the gripping section (the “nozzle”), which in turn screwed into the barrel. To fill the pen, the user unscrewed the section and used an eyedropper (the “filler”) to put ink into the barrel, afterward reinstalling the section. The D. W. Beaumel pen shown here is a typical example from shortly after the turn of the twentieth century.

Pen filler
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Despite the simplicity and wide usage of this design, it was not without weaknesses. It turned out that if not screwed together firmly enough, the pen could leak at the section/barrel joint, soiling the user’s fingers. But if screwed together too firmly, the pen could be extremely difficult to open for refilling. And, because the material of the barrel and section was thinner at the joint, breakage was not unknown. Not everyone was satisfied with what was obviously a less than perfect solution.

Variation I

To work around these deficiencies, Arthur A. Waterman developed a “middle-joint” pen (a subset of the invention described in U.S. Patent No 619,702). In this design, the section is greatly elongated — but the extra length is only a housing into which the barrel fits. The exposed joint is well back from the fingers; in fact, it’s placed where the writer’s hand will not touch it. Waterman gave up the rights to his middle-joint design as part of the settlement in an unrelated lawsuit, and soon other companies were making middle-joint pens. The middle-joint pen shown here, made by the Hub Fountain Pen Company of Everett, Massachusetts, has an imprint reading simply THE HUB FOUNTAIN PEN.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Variation II

The Eagle Pencil Company, which actually beat Waterman to the draw, moved the joint all the way to the distal end of the barrel (U.S. Patent No 599,591, issued to Claes W. Boman). In the Eagle version, the extended section becomes the whole barrel, and it is fitted with threads inside the opening at the back. The ink reservoir is a smaller tube with a knob at its closed end, and threads adjacent to the knob mate with those in the barrel to secure the reservoir in place. To prevent leakage, the front end of the reservoir fits precisely into a narrow groove between the back end of the section and the bore of the barrel.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
(Eagle photographs courtesy David Nishimura)

Variation III

Another approach was to eliminate the joint altogether. George S. Parker did this by creating a push-to-install nib unit that combined the nib and feed with a hard rubber collar (U.S. Patent No 622,256). Similar pens with threaded nib units also made an appearance. To fill a jointless pen such as the Parker Jointless No 020 shown below, the user removed the nib unit. This could get even more messy than usual, and there was the perennial risk that the nib and feed might become misaligned or damaged during removal or reinstallation. Worst of all, perhaps, was the possibility of the nib unit’s becoming stuck tightly enough that the average person simply could not remove it.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Parker also had some of his engineers working on jointless designs, and one, by Stephen J. Meyerpeter, received U.S. Patent No 629,519 but was not put into production. Parker himself received a total of three patents for versions of the jointless system, the third of which claims a shortened feed that eliminated Parker’s famous curved feed, the Lucky Curve, without losing its ability to prevent leakage. So far as is known, neither his second nor his third version reached production.

Variation IV

Jay G. Rider liked the jointless approach, but he attacked the problem in a way that circumvented the difficulties presented by his competitors’ jointless designs. In Rider’s ingenious design (U.S. Patent No 739,720, issued in 1903), the nib stays put, keyed into the open end of the barrel and held by friction, while the feed can be removed alone. The feed, too, is keyed so that it fits perfectly into the square opening that holds the nib. It cannot go in wrong, and once in place it aligns itself perfectly. The principal difference between the patent drawings and the actual production pens is that, in production, Rider set the square opening on its diagonal axis, because doing so made for much easier manufacture. Shown here is a No 5 “Perfection” pen.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

The obvious question is, “How do you get just the feed out?” The answer to that question, and in fact the key to the whole pen, is the oddly shaped clip (U.S. Patent No 919,244, issued in 1909). Here are top and side views of the feed from the No 5 pen.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Note the notch cut into the underside of the feed. To remove the feed, engage the loop end of the clip with that notch, ease the feed out of the pen, and set the feed down on a tissue that you can later use to grasp the feed for reinsertion. No muss, no fuss!

Rider’s feed illustrates yet another solution for the nearly universal lack of buffering capacity possessed by early feeds. Ink trapped in the feed remained there when the pen was capped and put into the pocket, lying in wait to become a blot when the user next turned the pen nib downward to write with it. Parker’s Lucky Curve feed, the first design to address this problem with relative success, provided a capillary channel that contacted the reservoir wall so that the trapped ink could escape down into the reservoir. Without using a comb feed (patented in 1904 by August Eberstein for the Boston Fountain Pen Company), there was actually no other practical way to protect against that initial blot, and Rider copied the basic principle of Parker’s feed — but he appears to have done it without infringing on Parker’s patent. His patent drawings do not illustrate the downward curve of the feed that accomplishes the “Lucky Curve” function. Did Rider add that feature during product development, or did he deliberately omit it from his 1901 patent application?

Intermezzo

Many collectors, when they think of eyedropper fillers, forget retractable safety pens. In the early years of fountain pens, caps slipped onto pen bodies and stayed by friction, and there was a nontrivial likelihood that they’d slip off again — which, of course, meant that the user’s pocket could inadvertently become a blotting rag. The purpose of a safety pen was simply to prevent leakage in the user’s pocket by preventing the cap from slipping off.

Variation V

The simple solution was to thread the cap and barrel so that they screwed together, but it seems not to have occurred to inventors that by starting with a cap like the ones then in use, and placing the threads at its open end, any ordinary pen could be made safe. Instead, in 1896, Morris W. Moore received U.S. Patents Nos 567,151 and 567,152 for his retractable pen, and in 1899 Walter F. Cushing and William F. Cushman founded the American Fountain Pen Company to build pens to Moore’s design.

Moore’s Non-Leakable Safety Pen was simplicity itself: the nib carrier was mounted at the front end of a shaft that passed all the way through the pen body and out the back end to finish in a knob, and also served as the feed. Cork packing at the end of the barrel sealed the pen against leaks at that end, and, with the nib retracted, the cap screwed onto the front of the barrel to seal that end. To protect the shaft when the nib was retracted, Moore added a sleeve that covered the back part of the barrel, attaching it to the knob. Shown here is a gold-filled overlay Moore in the Pansy pattern:

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Variation VI

In Moore’s pen, the nib is held extended by friction between the open barrel end and the collar securing the nib to the feed, assisted by friction between the shaft and its packing. Although the system seems very reliable, not everyone was confident that this was a good design. In 1898, Francis C. Brown patented a pen that used a helical cam (a long-pitch screw) to extend and retract the nib (U.S. Patent No 612,013). Like Moore’s design, Brown’s pen has a shaft extending through a plug at the back of the barrel with a cork packing to seal the pen at that end. A knob turns the shaft, forcing the nib carrier to move along a helical slot to extend or retract the nib.

Brown sold his safeties under his own brand, Caw’s, and he later licensed the technology to L. E. Waterman, which produced safeties in a wide variety of sizes and styles. Shown here is a Caw’s No 327.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

In 1897, Roy Conklin invented the magic bullet that precipitated the fall of the kingdom of the eyedropper, in the form of his Crescent-Filler. The lever-filler, first patented in 1903 by John Barnes and subsequently improved by Ruel W. Whitney and Walteer A. Sheaffer, pretty much knocked the stuffing out of eyedroppers — but even so, they didn’t die quickly or easily. Moore and Waterman continued making eyedropper-filling safety pens for many years; Moore finally let go of the Non-Leakable in 1925, and Waterman’s safeties were still catalogued into the 1930s.

Coda

The common eyedropper has enjoyed a renaissance in the past decade, as it has been rediscovered by dedicated pen users for whom ink capacity is paramount. Today, several manufacturers have responded to the need by producing pens at various price levels. Shown here are a Bexley 58 (an American cartridge/converter pen with an O-ring to provide a seal for use as an eyedropper filler) and a Wality 69L (a purpose-built eyedropper-filler made in India).

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

It’s often been said that what goes around comes around. Never was that aphorism truer than in the case of the eyedropper-filling fountain pen.


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