Who Invented the Fountain Pen?

Lewis Waterman, William Purvis and the Fountain Pen

Fountain pen ticking box on page, close-up
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Necessity might be the mother of invention, but frustration fuels the fire – or at least that was the case for Lewis Waterman. Waterman was an insurance broker in New York City in 1883, getting ready to sign one of his hottest contracts. He bought a new fountain pen in honor of the occasion. Then, with the contract on the table and the pen in the client’s hand, the pen refused to write. Worse, it actually leaked onto the precious document.

Horrified, Waterman raced back to his office for another contract, but a competing broker closed the deal in the meantime. Determined to never suffer such humiliation again, Waterman began to make his own fountain pens in his brother’s workshop.

The First Fountain Pens

Writing instruments designed to carry their own supply of ink had existed in principle for over 100 years before Waterman put his mind to improving the concept.

The earliest inventors noted the apparent natural ink reserve found in the hollow channel of a bird's feather. They tried to produce a similar effect, creating a man-made pen that would hold more ink and not require constant dipping into an inkwell. But a feather is not a pen, and filling a long thin reservoir made of hard rubber with ink and sticking a metal 'nib' at the bottom was not enough to produce a smooth writing instrument.

The oldest known fountain pen – still around today – was designed by M. Bion, a Frenchman, in 1702. Peregrin Williamson, a Baltimore shoemaker, received the first American patent for such a pen in 1809. John Scheffer received a British patent in 1819 for a half-quill-half-metal pen that he attempted to mass manufacture. John Jacob Parker patented the first self-filling fountain pen in 1831. Most of these were plagued by ink spills such as the one Waterman experienced, and other failures made them impractical and hard to sell. 

The earliest 19th-century pens used an eyedropper to fill the reservoir. By 1915, most pens had switched to self-filling soft and flexible rubber sacs -- to refill these pens, the reservoirs were squeezed flat by an internal plate, then the pen's nib was inserted into a bottle of ink and the pressure on the internal plate was released so the ink sac would fill up, drawing in a fresh supply of ink.

Waterman’s Fountain Pen

Waterman used the capillarity principle to create his first pen. It used air to induce a steady and even flow of ink. His idea was to add an air hole in the nib and three grooves inside the feed mechanism. He christened his pen "the Regular" and decorated it with wood accents, obtaining a patent for it in 1884.

Waterman sold his hand-made pens out of the back of a cigar shop in his first year of operation. He guaranteed the pens for five years and advertised in a trendy magazine, The Review of Review. Orders began filtering in. By 1899, he had opened a factory in Montreal and was offering a variety of designs.

Waterman died in 1901 and his nephew, Frank D. Waterman, took the business overseas, increasing sales to 350,000 pens a year. The Treaty of Versailles was signed using a solid gold Waterman pen, a far cry from the day when Lewis Waterman lost his important contract due to a leaky fountain pen.

William Purvis’ Fountain Pen

William Purvis of Philadelphia invented and patented improvements to the fountain pen in 1890. His goal was to make a "more durable, inexpensive and better pen to carry in the pocket." Purvis inserted an elastic tube between the pen nib and the ink reservoir that used a suction action to return any excess ink to the ink reservoir, reducing ink spills and increasing the longevity of the ink.

Purvis also invented two machines for making paper bags which he sold to the Union Paper Bag Company of New York, as well as a bag fastener, a self-inking hand stamp and several devices for electric railroads. His first paper bag machine, for which he received a patent, created satchel bottom-type bags in an improved volume and with greater automation than previous machines.

Other Fountain Pen Patents and Improvements

The different ways that reservoirs filled proved to be one of the most competitive areas in the fountain pen industry. Several patents were issued over the years for self-filling fountain pen designs:

  • The Button Filler: Patented in 1905 and first offered by the Parker Pen Company in 1913, this was an alternative to the eyedropper method. An external button connected to the internal pressure plate that flattened the ink sac when pressed.
  • Lever Filler: Walter Sheaffer patented the lever filler in 1908. The W.A. Sheaffer Pen Company of Fort Madison, Iowa introduced it in 1912. An external lever depressed the flexible ink sac. The lever fitted flush with the barrel of the pen when it was not in use. The lever filler was the winning design for fountain pens for the next 40 years.
  • Click Filler: First called the crescent filler, Roy Conklin of Toledo commercially produced the first pen of this type. A later design by Parker Pen Company also used the name “click filler.” When two protruding tabs on the outside of the pen pressed, the ink sac deflated. The tabs would make a clicking sound when the sac was full.
  • Matchstick Filler: This filler was introduced around 1910 by the Weidlich Company. A small rod mounted on the pen or a common matchstick depressed the internal pressure plate through a hole in the side of the barrel.
  • Coin Filler: This was Waterman’s attempt to compete with the winning lever filler patent that belonged to Sheaffer. A slot in the barrel of the pen enabled a coin to deflate the internal pressure plate, a similar idea to the matchstick filler.

Early inks caused steel nibs to quickly corrode and gold nibs held up to the corrosion. Iridium used on the very tip of the nib eventually replaced gold because gold was too soft.

Most owners had their initials engraved on the clip. It took about four months to break in a new writing instrument because the nib was designed to flex as pressure was put on it, allowing the writer to vary the width of the writing lines. Each nib wore down, accommodating each owner's writing style. People did not loan their fountain pens to anyone for this reason.

An ink cartridge introduced around 1950 was a disposable, prefilled plastic or glass cartridge designed for clean and easy insertion. It was an immediate success, but the introduction of ballpoints overshadowed the invention of the cartridge and dried up business for the fountain pen industry. Fountain pens sell today as classic writing instruments and the original pens have become very hot collectibles.

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Bellis, Mary. "Who Invented the Fountain Pen?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/lewis-waterman-fountain-pen-4077862. Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 26). Who Invented the Fountain Pen? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/lewis-waterman-fountain-pen-4077862 Bellis, Mary. "Who Invented the Fountain Pen?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/lewis-waterman-fountain-pen-4077862 (accessed June 10, 2023).