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This article is a revised and expanded version of one that appeared in the October 2012 issue of PEN WORLD magazine.
Most pen historians believe that Roy Conklin invented the first successful self-filling fountain pen in 1897. They also agree that his Toledo, Ohio, company began selling Conklin’s Crescent filler pens in 1901 and that it was out of business by the end of 1938, at which time it was sold to a syndicate from Chicago.
Most of that is true. The part that isn’t? Conklin’s pen wasn’t the first successful self filler.
The First Pull
In 1893, the Rev. Woodruff Post received U.S. Patent No 510,145 for his “ink-lifting fountain pen operating by means of a handle-provided plunger.” Within a year, his eponymous company was cranking out Post Fountain Pens by the thousands. Today collectors call his filling system the Post filler, “pull filler,” or “syringe filler.” It’s an amazing system. Not only is it quick, easy and reliable, but it can also flush the pen more effectively than any other system.
Post’s patent drawings show the plunger handle in the form of a long taper, much like what would be found on a desk pen. Without a blind cap to protect the plunger handle from being pushed inadvertently, the pen would be a prime candidate for accidental use as an inky squirt gun. Advertisements such as the one on page 797 of American Sentinel, Volume 14, No 46, dated November 23, 1899, show that the pen—if it had actually been introduced without a “shield” (blind cap)—soon acquired one. The Post No 3 pen illustrated below was made c. 1910.
Before the end of 1903, the Post Fountain Pen Company disappeared from the landscape; but the Post Fountain Pen itself did not. Advertising for it began appearing over the name of the Reliance Trading Company, a for-profit business established in 1902 by the Salvation Army.
Whether Post had initially founded his company under the auspices of the Salvation Army is not clear, but it is likely. According to his obituary in the June 28, 1906, issue of The Christian Advocate, among those participating in his funeral services was the Ensign of the Salvation Army at Olean, New York, where Post had resided.
The Post company name reappeared in advertising by about 1911. According to Trow’s New York Copartnership and Corporation Directory, the company’s name was discontinued in 1915; but the Post Fountain Pen Company is listed in reference indexes as being in operation, still at its original New York City address, as late as 1921.
Operation of Post’s pen was simplicity itself: First, push the plunger down, forcibly flushing out any ink that happens to remain in the pen. Then immerse the nib and part of the gripping section in ink and pull the plunger up. The pen draws in ink to fill the entire barrel. Because the barrel is only half the length of the pen’s body, ink capacity was not as great as that of a similarly sized eyedropper filler; but the pen still held a surprising amount of ink, and with filling so quick, easy and relatively free of mess, there would be less reason to postpone refilling the pen.
Huge sales were claimed for the Post Fountain Pen, and many notables, including Ben-Hur author Lew Wallace and England’s King Edward VII, endorsed it. But it is interesting to note that during the first decade of the twentieth century, the pen was being offered as a premium by many periodicals: the ads said, truthfully, that the pen never retailed for less than $3.00, but that for $2.50 you could get a year’s subscription to the periodical and a “free” Post pen.
Copies to Make a Buck
After Post’s patent expired, other companies jumped on the syringe-filler bandwagon. In New York, the Salz brothers began producing a syringe filler bearing an imprint that identified it as the Salz Fount. Pen. It was essentially the same as the typical straight-cap Post models.
And in Philadelphia, the Franklin Pen Company proved, once again, that anyone’s invention can be improved upon. The major weakness of any pen that relies on a sliding seal is the seal itself. If it deteriorates or is worn too badly, it will leak. Franklin’s approach to solving this problem was ingenious: the plunger shaft is hollow, with an inner shaft running through it. At the proximal end of the inner shaft is a flange to retain the cork seal against the end of the outer shaft, and the distal end of the inner shaft is threaded. A knurled nut screws onto the inner shaft to hold the assembly together. Tightening the nut compresses the cork lengthwise, forcing it to expand laterally against the barrel wall. I can’t find a patent for this design, so the drawing below is my own.
Coming to the syringe-filler game later than Salz, Franklin added a threaded cap and blind cap, and branded its pen the Franklin Self-Filling Safety Pen. The Franklin pen shown here, fitted with a Franklin-imprinted No. 5 nib, is an impressive example.
Copies to Make Pens At All
After World War I, pull fillers faded into oblivion — but not for long. One of the first things the U.S. government did after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was to impose restrictions on resources that were needed for the war effort. Among those resources was rubber. Suddenly, penmakers were between a rock and a hard place; not only were they being co-opted to produce war matériel, but they were also unable to produce the pens that had been their livelihood.
The solution, a pen that could be made without using any rubber at all, was half a century old — the syringe filler. A rash of third-tier pull-filling pens appeared on the market, many of them from makers who didn’t put their names on their pens and are consequently unknown today. These pens, whether they have names or not, are typically cheap, with thin celluloid bodies and celluloid sections fused into the barrels after the plungers were installed. They were not intended to be repaired or to survive forever. Today, many of them are crumbling and would be useless even if they could be disassembled for repair. The blue pen shown on this page was built by the Chicago incarnation of Conklin (owned at that time by the Starr Pen Company), and it’s effectively irreparable. The green and amber one, bearing an imprint reading DU-PONT, has been under the restorer’s knife and is now a superb example.
Economy of Design Under Duress
Perhaps the most exciting syringe filler to come out of World War II was Morrison’s Patriot. Introduced before the war and made in versions to honor the four armed service branches and various other patriotic ideals, the Patriot had Morrison’s sloped Cameo Top cap crown, and each of the four service-oriented versions was fitted with the crest of its service branch, cast in sterling silver and plated in gold. (Other versions, such as the one to honor America’s Blue Star Mothers, had their own specialized crests or other cap crown designs.)
What made the wartime Patriot different from its predecessors — and its competition — was its unorthodox design. Prewar Patriots had been ordinary lever fillers, but when the U.S. government clamped severe restrictions on rubber in late 1942, Morrison complied by introducing a syringe-filling pen that it called the Visible Vacuum Filler. Instead of designing a completely new pen, Morrison’s engineers worked a clever revision of their existing lever filler by eliminating the lever and threading the joint between the section and the barrel. Instead of a sac, they installed a celluloid cylinder fitted with a plunger to create a hidden syringe filler.
Improving the Function
The Post filler’s plunger shaft, which extended the barrel by nearly its own length, was considered a disadvantage because it reduced the pen’s ultimate ink capacity. One solution for that problem had appeared in 1898, in the form of U.S. Patent No 610,818, issued to George H. Means. Means’s design was for a complete pen, with features to prevent both flooding and choking of the ink flow, but the part of it that interests us here is his filling mechanism, as illustrated in this drawing from his patent:
In this filler, the shaft is fitted at its proximal end with a threaded area of slightly larger diameter. The plunger head is tapped to mate with the threads on the shaft. By pulling the shaft and then turning it counterclockwise, the user screws its end into the plunger head. Once the two parts are engaged, the plunger will fill the pen just as in a standard Post filler. With the pen filled, the user can unscrew the shaft from the head and push it back into the barrel, leaving the head at the distal end and the barrel full of ink. It is possible, however, that Means was unable to achieve a reliable ink-tight seal at the threaded joint. If he actually pursued production of it, his pen was — for this or for other reasons — ultimately unsuccessful.
The National Pen Products Company riffed on this general theme in a Gold Medal pen that it produced in the 1930s. Rather than try to maintain a seal at the proximal end of the shaft, National’s engineers created a collapsible shaft, as shown in the photographs below. The topmost photo shows the plunger at rest with the blind cap off, and the next photo shows the plunger extended and screwed together for use. This design increased ink capacity and allowed National to use a blind cap that was only about half the length of the barrel instead of its full length.
It Ain’t Over ’Til it’s Over
By the time World War II came to an end, the pen manufacturing landscape had changed. With rubber again available, pull fillers disappeared with remarkable speed — but not forever. Since 2010, two American pen companies and one in Belgium have introduced pull fillers. The Gate City Pen Company produces the Belmont Pen, a stylish 21st-century tribute to the pens of World War II. The Ahab, from Nathan Tardif’s company, Noodler’s Ink, is a new take on pull fillers. Built with a concealed filler like that in Morrison’s Patriot, it can be disassembled completely by the user for cleaning or repair, and its enhanced filler design uses a hollow plunger and a breather tube for increased ink capacity. The CONID Bulkfiller features an enhanced high-capacity filling system based on the same collapsing piston used in the Means patent of 1898, but with 21st-century technology to ensure that the joint between the shaft and the plunger head does not leak.
The syringe filler, in addition to being the first successful self-filler, was — and still is — the fastest, simplest, most positive, and most reliable filling system ever built into a fountain pen. Woodruff Post could have had no idea, when he began producing the Post Fountain Pen, that his creation would outlive him by more than a century.
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