Technological Nostalgia: The Fountain Pen

Many people nowadays do not know what a fountain pen is, so let me explain for the uninitiated. It is a pen with a tip that is a piece of steel,or some other metal, with a small slit cut into it. The slit allows ink to flow into the tip and onto the page. It uses a principle pioneered by the quill pen, which is what I love about it. Whenever I use a fountain pen to write I feel a historical connection to medieval monks sitting in a monastery transcribing ancient manuscripts. I find this feeling very empowering. Unfortunately I no longer use fountain pen for many of my works, because it is a hassle to transcribe a handwritten manuscript into a computer, which is much more convenient to work with.

The problem with the quill pen is that you have to constantly dip it in ink, which was very inconvenient. After you write a few words (or even a few letters), the pen will run out of ink and you need to dip it in ink. So when William Shakespeare or Charles Dickens wrote their works, they need to have a bottle of ink, which is called an inkwell, on their desks. I had a teacher who remembers using inkwells when he went to school. A common prank he played was if he was sitting behind a girl, he would sneak up on her, take the tip of her hair and dip it in ink. Needless to say, having to a pen that needs to be constantly dipped in ink was very messy, so eventually people invented the technology to put the ink inside the barrel of the pen. This technology had already existed in the Middle Ages, but it wasn’t until the development of better materials such as steel and better inks that it was technically possible to manufacture these pens on a large scale.

Almost immediately after the invention of the fountain pen, manufacturers began making high-end versions of their products. They would make the nib out of a gold alloy instead of plain steel, add intricate inlays onto the barrel, and even encrust the pen in gemstones. One of the best marketing campaigns was the “iridium-tipped” pens. Iridium is an extremely hard precious metal that is usually found in meteorites, and perfectly suited to be used as tips for fountain pens. It is rarer and more expensive than gold, which made it a good marketing point. Early fountain pens from the 1920s sometimes did use iridium alloys, but the metal was so expensive that only a few manufacturers can afford it. Other manufacturers started calling their pens as “iridium-tipped” as well, even though they often contained no iridium. By the end of World War II almost no manufacturers used iridium alloys to tip their pens, but the name still persists.

When ballpoint and other types of pen became common, fountain pens fell out of use. At that point, the marketing focused more on presenting fountain pens as a luxury item and class symbol rather than a utilitarian tool. Today, writing with a fountain pen contain certain notions of class and prestige, as well as a sense of nostalgia. Despite being an obsolete technology, it continues to be a symbol of the writing profession, along with the typewriter. Artists still sometime depict writers holding a fountain pen in their hand, and it is recognized by many people who have not seen one first-hand. Perhaps it is due to the distinctive shape of the pen ma The pentagon shape of the nib is immediately recognizable in a way the tip of a ballpoint pen isn’t.

There is an advantage to fountain pens that ballpoint pens don’t have, it takes a lot less pressure to write. I can’t imagine what it would be like to write an entire novel with a ballpoint pen. The smooth gliding of the tip of the fountain pen over the paper made writing very easy. Modern roller ball pens write much smoother than ballpoint pens, but they are not refillable the way most fountain pens are, which puts them at a disadvantage.

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