Before computers, before typewriters, even before the notorious ballpoint pen, the Fountain pen was writing books and letters across the world. Born from humble beginnings as a simple water reed dipped into ink, the fountain pen eventually expanded to include a reservoir of ink so liquid colour could flow, through precious metal nibs, onto paper. Now, these writing instruments are seen as status symbols with the most powerful figures on the planet signing contracts with them. So join me as we explore 35 fantastic facts about Fountain pens.
Fact 1: Unlike a ballpoint pen or a rollerball pen, a Fountain pen doesn’t have a ball bearing to roll over the paper to deposit ink. Instead, a fountain pen’s tip is simply covered in ink. The ink acts as a lubricant to help the pen glide across the paper before being pulled onto the paper via capillary action. More on this later.
Fact 2: The metal end of a Fountain pen is called nibs. These can be plain or decorative and they come in many sizes and materials.
Fact 3: Fountain pen nibs come in a number of different materials including steel, Palladium, 14 carat gold, 18 carat gold, sometimes, but rarely, 22 carat gold, and titanium.
Fact 4: The very tip of a Fountain pen’s nib is often covered in a hard material called iridium. Pen makers started doing this because pure gold tips wear relatively quickly with use eventually making the pen useless.
Fact 5: The predecessor to the fountain pen was called a dip pen. To look at, they seem very similar. For example, both have a nib and a body to hold. However the difference between a dip pen and a Fountain pen is that a dip pen does not have a reservoir of ink. You must keep dipping, hence the name, the pen in an ink bottle every couple of sentences to refill it
Fact 6: A fountain pen makes use of the scientific principle and fluid dynamic property of capillary action. Capillary action is the ability of a liquid, such as ink, to flow into narrow spaces without any external force creating the flow. In regards to a Fountain pen, the ink is drawn through the pen to the tip via ever decreasing in size caterpillars, or tubes. Then finally tiny channels and imperfections on the paper draw the ink off the pen’s tip onto the paper.
Fact 7: If you take a close look at a Fountain pen, you’ll notice that from the tip to about halfway up the nib there is a slit in the metal. The metal prongs either side of the slit are called tines. The tines create flexibility in the nib which lets the writer create very personal and unique writing styles with varying line widths. But, most importantly, the slit transports ink to the tip.
Fact 8: Since fountain pens hold a reservoir of ink, there has to be some way to refill that reservoir. Fountain pen makers have come up with ingenuously imaginative ways of refilling the reservoir in their pens. These include piston fillers and vacuum transfer fillers. We’ll look at these in more detail soon.
Fact 9: Many lower cost Fountain pens use replaceable ink reservoirs called ink cartridges. These cartridges are made of plastic and are usually disposable. Fortunately, these cartridges are recyclable.
Fact 10: According to historical records in the 10th century and Egyptian Fatimid Califf called Al-Mu’izz Li-Din Allah asked artisans to make him a pen that wouldn’t leak over him. He was given a pen that had a reservoir of ink and it could be held upside down without leaking. This is considered by many to be the first example of a Fountain pen.
Fact 11: Other than the example above, early fountain pens all suffered from one specific problem: leaking. The earliest example of a modern pen companies trying to solve this messy situation was the invention of the “safety pen”. It was called a safety pen because the nib was “safely” retracted into the body of the pen. This stoped the flow of ink to the nib.
Fact 12: Before the dip pen, the fountain pen’s predecessor, there were quill pens. These were made from the feathers from a goose or other large bird. After plucking a suitable feather from the bird, a slit was made using a small sharp knife in the body of the feather for the ink to flow down.
Fact 13: The knife that was used to make the slits in writing quills were very sharp, very small, and purposely made for the job. It was called a “penknife”. That’s where the name for the modern penknife originated from.
Fact 14: The most popular style of ink reservoir in a Fountain pen is the screw piston reservoir. To fill the reservoir, you first screw the piston down to push out all the air. Then you dip the pen in a bottle of ink, submerging the nib. Finally, you twist the piston in the opposite direction to draw ink into the reservoir. To finish off, you wipe the nib clean and start writing.
Fact 15: In 1966, the German Fountain pen maker Lamy (To pronounce correctly, pronounce the “La” at the beginning like the “La” at the beginning of “Large”. The “my” is pronounced in the same way as the word “me”. ) introduced the futuristic Lamy 2000 fountain pen. This pen has proved so popular that it’s never been out of production.
Fact 16: Fountain pen nibs come in many “sizes” to suit different writing styles. These include extra fine, fine, medium, broad, and extra broad. However, there are other types of nibs that don’t fall into these basic size categories. These include music, oblique, left-hand oblique, stub, and 360° nibs.
Fact 17: It’s actually possible to write with a fountain pen upside-down. They can be a little scratchy, and the ink flow may stop. But they do produce a very fine line when used in this way.
Fact 18: You can tell if a nib size is right for you by looking at your “e’s”. If you write your “e” and there is no hole in the middle of the top part of the e, then the nib you are using is too broad and you should step down a size. It’s really that simple.
Fact 19: Wetness is a term in the fountain pen world used to describe how much ink is flowing from the pen onto the paper. A pen described as being wet will pool more ink on the lines created on the paper, creating variety in colour and Sheen. Conversely, a pen described as being very dry would put very little ink on the page. This can make the ink look washed out. But the ink dries quicker and this can be great for left-handed writers who have a tendency to smudge the ink.
Fact 20: Over time, nibs wear in for the user. After writing millions of characters, the pen tip will grind down to suit the angle you hold the pen. So, if you lend your pen to somebody else, it may feel “off” and uncomfortable to use, even scratchy. This is because they are not holding the pen at the exact same angle as you. Less than a degree can make a difference.
Fact 21: A vacuum filler design is a simple system to fill a Fountain pen reservoir. Usually a rubber sack or bladder is used as the reservoir. To fill the pen, first the nib is submerged in ink. Then a button on the side of the pen is pressed 10 to 15 times to force all of the air out of the bladder. Then the pen is left in the ink for 10 to 15 seconds. In this time the pen draws ink into the rubber sack. You then remove the pen, clean it, and it’s ready to use
Fact 22: Many top end fountain pens from companies such as Mont Blanc or Visconti, come in demonstrator pen form. These pens are often made from transparent acrylic and are designed to show the inner metal mechanisms of the pen.
Fact 23: Mont Blanc, the famous pen maker that supplies presidents and prime ministers with Fountain pens, are actually a German not French company like many believe.
Fact 24: Staying with the Mont Blanc theme. The company is named after the tallest mountain in Europe: Mont Blanc which is in France.
Fact 25: And one more cool fact about Mont Blanc is their nibs. Every Mont Blanc nib has the number 4810 engraved onto it. Many people wrongly think this is the nib’s production number. But it’s actually the height of Mont Blanc in metres. Platinum, a Japanese fountain pen maker, also does something similar. They print, 3776 on some of their nibs, which is the hight of Mt. Fuji.
Fact 26: Often, high-quality Fountain pens are referred to as writing instruments to denote a higher class of writing tool over and above a standard pen.
Fact 27: Fountain pen inks comes in hundreds of different colours from many different brands. But each one is unique and offers a different feel when writing. This is because different pigments and dies offer different colours, sheens, and highlights. Plus the fluid base of the ink will be differ from manufacturer to manufacturer offering different levels of lubrication. This means that one blue ink may be really slick and slippery. Whereas another blue ink might offer more friction but it’s shinny.
Fact 28: Most Fountain pen ink is dye-based not pigment-based like paint. This is because pigment particles would easily and quickly clog up the capillaries in a fountain pen making it useless.
Fact 29: Iron gall ink, made from iron salts and vegetable acids, can’t be used in a Fountain pen as it erodes the metals in the pen mechanisms.
Fact 30: The most expensive Fountain pen in the world is made by Italian company Tibaldi. Their Fulgor Nocturnus fountain pen costs $8 million to buy. The pen is dusted in 945 black diamonds and 123 Rubys is making it a writer’s ultimate bling accessory.
Fact 31: Both Pilot and Sailor are actually Japanese Fountain pen makers that adopted western sounding names to appeal to the European and American markets.
Fact 32: Namiki, Owned by Pilot, are known by pen enthusiasts as one of the best Fountain pen makers in the world. They make their pens out of a special Urushi-based lacquer. In some cases, this process can only take place once or twice a year when the humidity and temperature are just right. This also makes the Namiki pens very expensive. The cheapest pens start at $700.
Fact 33: Maki-e Fountain pens are a traditional pen made in Japan. First the pen’s body and mechanism are created by hand. Then a skilled artist will hand paint a traditional Japanese motif directly onto the pens body, using gold and silver containing paints, in a process that can take months to complete.
Fact 34: Instead of using ink cartridges, you can buy a converter that sits in your pen so you can use bottled ink. Interestingly, you may notice these converters sometimes contain one, two, or even three ballbearings. These are placed inside the converter to decrease the liquid’s surface tension making it easier for the ink to flow.
Fact 35: This article, and every article I’ve written on Every Fact Ever, has had its outline and first draft written with a Fountain pen. Specifically a Lamy 2000 Fountain pen. If you’d like to see some of the hand written first draft, take a look at the image below. But I warn you, my writing is messy!