Who Really Invented the Fountain Pen?

(This page revised July 7, 2017)

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PEN WORLD MagazineThis article is an extensively revised and expanded version of one that originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of PEN WORLD magazine.

If you spend much time researching fountain pen history on the Internet, at some point you will very likely come across Petrache Poenaru (1799–1875). You can find him cited in numerous articles as the inventor of the fountain pen, but not all that you read is true. This article examines Poenaru’s pen and then explores some of its antecedents.

Petrache Poenaru, a Romanian mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor, teacher, politician, agronomist, and zoo-technologist, was a 27-year-old student at the École Polytechnique in Paris at the time of his great invention. As the story goes, he took prodigious quantities of notes and wanted a pen that didn’t require continual dipping. So he invented the fountain pen. What is certainly true is that on May 23, 1827, French Patent No 3208 was issued to “Sieur Poyenar” for “une plume sans fin portative s’alimentant d’encre d’elle même,” a portable pen without end, feeding itself with ink by itself — or, as we understand it, a fountain pen. Poenaru’s pen was not like a modern fountain pen, however, because it did not automatically feed a steady flow of ink to the nib.

The 3-D cutaway drawing below, developed from Poenaru’s patent, shows the simplicity of his pen design. The barrel, made from the shaft of a large feather, is glued into a metal ferrule at the rear end; that ferrule is threaded for a blind cap. To fill the pen, the user simply unscrews the blind cap and uses an eyedropper to put ink into the barrel.

Pen diagram
Pen diagram

At the front is another ferrule that is made up, essentially, of three nested tubes. The barrel is glued into this ferrule’s larger end. A nib, made from the shaft of a smaller feather or of metal, fits snugly over the smaller end, which is closed except for a small hole in its center. To feed ink to the nib, the user squeezes the barrel gently to force ink through the hole in the ferrule. There is a slip-on cap to keep the pen from drying out, and attached to the inside of the cap is a pin that fits through the hole in the front ferrule to prevent ink from passing through the hole when the pen is not in use and when it is being filled.

But, as hinted at the outset, stories crediting Petrache Poenaru as the inventor the fountain pen are not true. His design was not the first to be patented or the first to be produced. Let’s step back in time to the 10th century, to Cairo, Egypt, where we will find the court of the fourth caliph of the Faˉṭimid Caliphate, the enlightened ruler Abu Tamim Ma’ad al-Mu’izz Li-Din Allah (932–975). According to the official caliphate historian Qadi al-Nu’man al-Tamimi in his Kitaˉb al-Majaˉlis wa’l-musayaraˉt (Book of Sessions and Excursions), al-Mu’izz commissioned the construction of a pen that would not stain his hands or clothes. The historian recounts a conversation between himself and al-Mu’izz and describes the pen in this passage, as translated by the noted English historian and Orientalist Clifford Edmund Bosworth:

[Al-Mu’izz said:] “We wish to construct a pen which can be used for writing without having recourse to an ink-holder and whose ink will be contained inside it. A person can fill it with ink and write whatever he likes. The writer can put it in his sleeve or anywhere he wishes and it will not stain nor will any drop of ink leak out of it. The ink will flow only when there is an intention to write. We are unaware of anyone previously ever constructing [a pen such as this] and an indication of ‘penetrating wisdom’ to whoever contemplates it and realises its exact significance and purpose.” I exclaimed, “Is this possible?” He replied, “It is possible if God so wills.”

In a few days, the craftsman to whom the pen had been described brought a model made of gold. After filling it with ink, he was able to write with it. But as more ink came out than was needed, the craftsman was ordered to alter it. Finally, the pen was brought back repaired. It was turned over in the hand and tilted in all directions and no ink appeared. But as soon as he took it and began to write, he wrote the best hand for as long as he wished and when he took the pen away from the paper the ink vanished. Thus I beheld a wonderful work the like of which I had never thought to see.

Al-Nu’man gave no details of the pen’s construction, and no examples are known to have survived; but if this account is true, the earliest known fountain pen was invented in 953, nearly nine hundred years before Poenaru received his patent. Even then, however, Poenaru’s pen wasn’t a giant step forward. Between that unknown Egyptian craftsman and Poenaru came other inventors, each striving to perfect the function of a fountain pen.

In his 1636 collection of mathematical problems and puzzles, Deliciae Physico-Mathematicæ, oder Mathematische und Philosophische Erquickstunden (Physico-Mathematical Treasures, or Mathematical and Philosophical Recreations), the German Orientalist, mathematician, inventor, poet, and librarian Daniel Schwenter (1585–1636) described a pen made from several quills. The construction of this pen is widely misunderstood today, most writers describing it in the following general terms:

…made from two quills. One quill served as a reservoir for ink inside the other quill. The ink was sealed inside the quill with cork. Ink was squeezed through a small hole to the writing point.

(from the Wikipedia article on Daniel Schwenter, as it appeared in December 2015)

My research shows the foregoing description to be wildly inaccurate. The following is my translation, made with the assistance of Professor Jeffrey Cooley of Boston College, of Schwenter’s description as it appears in Chapter XIV of Book I.

The Third Exercise.

A lovely secret: to prepare a pen that holds ink
and allows as much as one needs.

Schwenter's pen

First, take three quills. From each cut out the piece 2–3; stick these three pieces carefully into one another. Then from the fourth quill cut a piece like 2–5. Cut at 4 a little hole therein, so that a small sumac seed can safely fall through. Put that piece on top of the three pieces, so the small hole comes above [closer to the writing tip]. Such a covering, made from one piece of a quill, can be observed as at 9–5, cut from the fifth quill. And then from the sixth quill, to prepare a good nib, cut the hole and divide it down the middle, so it is like 6–7. Finally, cut a piece like 3–5 from the seventh quill, with a little hole 4. Place it in the small half-tube 6–7, so that the small hole 4 comes in the middle. Such is the piece 6–7, along with the little piece 8 as it lies therein. The pen must be joined below, in the underlying piece, so that piece X–7 stands in front. Thus the pen is prepared.

Now, to use such a pen, remove the feather part from it. Immerse it at 7 in a very fine, clean, pure, and thin ink. Take the pen in the mouth. Draw your breath in. Thus, the pen is completely filled with ink. Replace the feather part in a careful manner, so that nothing should run out; thereby the vacuum will prevent it. If one, however, presses the pen at 8, the ink gets air at two places, and afterwards a drop comes out because of this; then you can prescribe, and thereafter as often as you press, more ink will flow. It is a very useful pen for a scholar or a surveyor.

In Case You Were Wondering

scwhenter_thumb

Researching from primary sources is ex­citing and definitive, but it can present challenges. Such was the case with this passage from Schwenter’s book. For the terminally curious, I have created a pop-up page illustrating two pages from the original German book, as shown by the thumb­nail images above.

To view the larger version along with a brief description of the challenges Schwen­ter’s description presented, click here or on either thumbnail.

The principle of a reservoir that requires squeezing to deliver ink was the basis for many of the designs that followed Schwenter’s, including that of Poenaru.

Several mentions of “reservoir pens” made of metal occur in the latter part of the 17th century; among them is one from the diary of Samuel Pepys (1633–1703). At the close of his entry dated August 5, 1663, Pepys wrote, “This evening came a letter about business from Mr. Coventry, and with it a silver pen he promised me to carry inke [sic] in, which is very necessary.” Two years later, on November 27, 1665, he wrote, “Cocke and I took a hackney coach appointed with four horses to take us up, and so carried us over London Bridge. But there, thinking of some business, I did ’light at the foot of the bridge, and … I wrote a letter to Mr. Hater, and never knew so great an instance of the usefulness of carrying pen and ink and wax about one.” It is not clear from this passage whether “pen and ink” referred to his reservoir pen, which contained ink, or to a conventional dip pen with a separate traveling inkwell. It is nonetheless certain that reservoir pens were in use during that period.

Moving forward to the first decade of the 18th century, we encounter in Paris one Nicolas Bion (1652–1733), who was chief instrument maker to the court of Louis XIV. Poenaru secured his 1827 patent while he was studying geodesy and surveying in Paris, and it is almost certain that in the course of his studies he would have encountered Bion’s Traité de la Construction et de Principaux Usages des Instrumens de Mathématique (Treatise on the Construction and the Principal Uses of the Mathematical Instruments). Bion first published his compendious work in 1709, and it remained in print for decades thereafter. In Chapter II of Book III, he describes the construction of a pen that is remarkably similar to Poenaru’s design. Several examples of this pen are known to survive; shown here is a photo of one of them.

Bion's pen

Pens made along this general principle of construction are known today as Bion pens, but it must be emphasized that Bion himself did not claim to have invented the design. (Instruments that he made bear his mark, but none of the surviving pens is so marked.) The following is my translation of Bion’s description as it appears in the 1753 edition of his work:

Construction of the endless Pen.

This Instrument is composed of different pieces of copper, silver, or other material; the pieces F G H [toward the upper left in the page image below] being joined together are about 5 inches in length. Its thickness is a little less than 1764 inch in diameter. The middle piece marked F holds the nib, which should be split and well sharpened and adjusted on a small tube threaded internally, which is soldered into another small tube [the barrel] of a size just fitting inside the cap G, into which is soldered a screw that serves to mount the aforementioned cap and screws into the pen to plug a small hole, which is at the place marked 1, to prevent the ink from coming out. At the other end of the body F there is a small tube threaded internally and externally. The outside threading serves to post the cap marked H, inside of which fits a small lead-holder that screws into the small tube of which we just spoke [the barrel] and serves to plug the opening in the neck, which is the place where one puts the ink into the body F, by means of a small funnel.

To use the aforementioned pen, one must remove the cap G and squeeze the pen a little, after which the ink comes out gently a little at a time as one writes. Note that the other end of the pen should be plugged, because otherwise the air column would press on the ink and would force it to come out all at once. At the two ends are soldered two blank seals, for the purpose of engraving thereon an initial and a coat of arms.

Bion's drawing

The Bion pen, with its screw cap, was a true safety pen in that it could not leak when capped; Poenaru’s pen, on the other hand, had a slip cap that could come off under moderately lively handling. The all-metal Bion pen was heavier than Poenaru’s metal-and-quill pen, however, and the light weight of the latter design was a major claim in Poenaru’s patent.

Note
A Slight Digression
There is one additional — and remarkable — feature in Bion’s description: the cap H does not seal the distal end of the barrel. Instead, a small lead-holder does. In the section preceding his description of the pen, Bion describes the construction of a double-ended lead-holder (tube C, holder D, and stud E). The lead-holder associated with his pen is much simpler, essentially half of the holder D: a socket, closed and externally threaded at one end and slotted partway along its length to form two or more “fingers” at the other end, with the fingers formed to grasp a short length of pencil lead (in Bion’s time, a cylindrical piece of pure graphite). The presence of this lead-holder means that the pen Bion described is possibly the world’s first combo.

The early 19th century was a busy time for fountain pen inventors. One of the most interesting patents from that period is that of John Scheffer, whose pen was in principle a Rube Goldberg version of the century-old design described by Nicolas Bion.

On July 8, 1819, Scheffer received British Patent No 4389 for his “Machine or Instrument for Writing, which I denominate the Penographic or Writing Instrument.” To be patented, an invention must claim some value over existing art; Scheffer’s claim reads as follows:

I hereby declare that my Invention consists in combining a cock of any convenient or suitable construction with an elastic tube, which may be rendered air-tight at one end by any convenient means, and when so combined and charged with ink, if pressure be any way applied, the ink may be forced through the cock when open, and thereby supply the nib of a pen as often as the pressure is repeated.

The design featured a metal housing containing an elastic tube made by applying several layers of sheep’s gut to the outside of a length of goose quill (labeled at each end with the lowercase letter c in Scheffer’s diagram, below). A pressure bar inside the case squeezed the elastic tube when the user’s thumb pressed on a stud outside the case. When the elastic tube was inserted into the case and wetted with ink, the dry sheep’s gut would soften and expand to form a seal around the pressure bar and at the front, where the tube entered a cup-shaped recess. A cork plug at the back end of the body sealed that end. To ensure that the elastic tube was prepared correctly, Scheffer included complete instructions for its preparation in quantity.

Patent drawing

At the front end of the case was a plug that Scheffer called a “cock tube,” with a drilled passage that conducted ink from the reservoir to the nib, a separate piece of quill that was interchangeable for replacement. The cock tube was fitted with a valve, or stopcock, to open or block the passage. To deliver ink to the nib, the user operated a small lever or stud to open the valve and then gently squeezed the pressure bar’s stud, a process involving two steps to deliver ink and a third step to close the ink path to prevent flooding.

Given that now the user would have to operate a valve and press a stud instead of merely squeezing the pen’s body, Scheffer’s design seems overly complicated for achieving what is essentially nothing more than Bion’s pen already accomplished. A potentially better design preceded Scheffer’s, however. On May 9, 1809, Frederick Bartholomew Fölsch received British Patent No 3235 for “Several Improvements on Certain Machines, Instruments, and Pens, Calculated to Promote Facility in Writing.” As described in his patent, Fölsch’s design featured a three-part assembly comprising a rigid barrel (the “tube”), a valve assembly that fitted into the back end of the tube (the “box”), and a nib unit (the “socket”) that fitted into the front. The three parts could be disassembled for cleaning. (The socket was not only removable, but also interchangeable so that nibs of different types could be fitted; Fölsch illustrated three nib styles in his drawings.)

folsch_patent_dwg

The front end of the tube was closed with a wall placed a distance back from the end to allow room for the socket to fit into the tube, with a small pipe extending from the wall to deliver ink to the nib, which was part of the socket. With the box installed in the back of the tube, opening the valve in the box admitted air into the tube, allowing ink to flow through the pipe.

Fölsch’s drawings show two forms of valves: a spring-loaded pushbutton valve or a threaded blind cap with an air passage that would be opened when the blind cap was partially unscrewed and sealed when the blind cap was screwed down again. (For inclusion with this article, I have altered Fölsch’s drawings to incorporate the blind-cap valve into the B view of the pen.)

A close reading of Fölsch’s patent claims shows some substantial improvements over earlier pens (and in fact over many that came later).

I … do hereby describe and ascertain the nature of my said Invention and Improvements, in manner following, that is to say:–

1st. in having a valve, acting with a spiral spring or a screw to affix on the tube of the pen, to supply it occasionally with air to force the ink into the socket of the pen. 2dly. In having a small pipe at the bottom of the tube to convey the ink into the socket of the pen, through which it is forced by the operation of the valve at the top of the tube. 3dly. In having a plate on front of the socket of the pen to contain a supply of ink for the nib, and to prevent the ink flowing too freely into the nib.

In two distinct ways, Fölsch’s pen was a true step forward. First, he did away with the need to squeeze or shake a pen to deliver ink to the nib. (Squeezing can damage a metal pen by creasing or dinging the barrel. The potential consequences of shaking are self-evident.) Because it was easier to use, the spring-loaded valve was the better of his two methods for admitting air; he quite probably included the threaded blind-cap version to cover the concept, not merely a single embodiment, and thereby forestall the creation of other pens similar to his. Second, the plate he provided to ensure that ink was readily available to the nib and that flow was not too great was a key feature: together with the nib itself, it was one of the earliest reservoir nibs, if not the earliest; and it was the predecessor, by more than a century, of Russell T. Wing’s U.S. Patent No 2,187,528, which laid the foundation for the ink collector in the Parker “51” (which in turn led to the profusely finned feeds used in most modern pens).

There were many others along the way, but let us return to Petrache Poenaru, whose efforts have been so badly misunderstood by modern-day Web sleuths. He never claimed to have invented the fountain pen. All he ever claimed was that he’d had a better idea, as is clear in this passage from his patent (my translation, with emphasis added). The letters A and F refer to the barrel quill and the small end of the front ferrule, respectively:

The advantages of this pen over those that exist for the same purpose, consist in the tube A, which is a quill instead of being metal or glass. By this means the instrument is much lighter, less fragile, and to make the ink arrive at the tip of the pen, it is not necessary to shake, which is an issue of great inconvenience. It suffices simply to squeeze the tube A with the fingers; the contained ink in this way flows in greater abundance through the little hole drilled in the center of the small holder F, fig. 2. This method also remedies difficulties caused by different degrees of temperature in the metals.

I have still not actually answered the original question, “Who really invented the fountain pen?” The truth is that there is no one answer. Like so many technological advances, the fountain pen was invented by generations of people who stood on the shoulders of those who went before.

Notes:
  1. This is the definition that I copied into my PEN WORLD article; but, as the present article demonstrates, I should have consulted primary sources instead of the Internet.

  2. The French original gives the dimensions of the pen in pouces (inches, =112 pied du roi) and lignes (=112 pouce). The pied du roi, the “king’s foot,” was approximately equal to 1.066 modern feet. There are 11.2598 lignes in a modern inch.

  3. Having to protect one’s patent is nothing new. Fölsch and a certain Ralph Wedgwood were acquainted with each other, and the available evidence suggests that they might have been business associates at some point. In the British Museum’s Heal Collection is a four-page pamphlet that Fölsch published in 1810, in which he asserted that Wedgwood’s advertisement for a patent reservoir pen in The European Magazine, and London Review, for June 1809 was a falsehood, that Fölsch himself had invented these pens and had a patent with his name on it as proof. The pamphlet includes a sworn statement by Fölsch’s associate William Howard, dated July 18, 1809, affirming Fölsch’s statement.


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