The answer to the question of when the fountain pen was invented is a bit of a long and rambling one.
From people filling reed pens with ink to the first patents to the modern fountain pen, the history of the fountain pen is a tale of the collaboration of inventors building off of each other's work to make a beautiful and effective writing instrument.
In this article, I am going to talk about the history of the fountain pen from where it got its name to why it was invented to the flood of game-changing innovations of the 19th century that ultimately made the fountain pen.
Let's start with the very question of the article.
When was the fountain pen invented?
The fountain pen was officially invented in 1809 with the first patent filed in England by Frederick Fölsch.
But, it's a bit of a tricky question really.
Many prototypes existed before 1809 dating as far back as c.974, but Frederick Fölsch's first patent marks the beginning of a slew of different patents and innovations that made the fountain pen popular and mass marketable by the 20th century.
So what exactly is this thing called a "fountain" pen?
Why is it called a fountain pen?
A fountain pen refers to any pen with ink stored inside the barrel of the pen that uses a metal nib to apply the ink to paper.
Originally, the term fountain pen was used to describe any writing instrument that stored the ink inside the body of the pen to allow continuous writing without dipping the pen in ink.
By these standards, even ballpoint pens and rollerball pens would be considered fountain pens.
But pretty quickly into the development of the fountain pen, the metal nib became a necessary feature, unique to the pen.
Where fountain once referred to an unending flowing of ink that needed no interruption, it later referenced the steady flow of water-based liquid ink from the reservoir through the recognizable metal nib.
You might now be wondering, "If fountain pens were all about a continuous flow of ink..."
What did they use before fountain pens?
Dip pens were used to write before the invention of fountain pens.
A dip pen was a reed pen or a quill pen that was dipped into an inkwell to coat the tip ink and write.
The ancient world used a hollow reed cut into a nib (shaped to a point and split down the center) to write, but reeds were eventually replaced by quill pens since reeds were stiffer and dulled quickly.
Goose feathers or large swan feathers became the material of choice for quill pens which were whittled into the necessary shape.
Reeds and quills both had a hollow tubular body that would draw some ink inside when the pen was dipped and allow the user to write a few words or a line without needing to re-dip the pen.
Problems with dip pens
Despite the necessity of the dip pen, this method of writing was riddled with problems.
Quills required constant work and skill to hone. In fact, the ability to cut a good quill was just as important as the ability to write.
Each quill could write for a few pages before needing to be retrimmed. A good quill would only last about a week.
Dip pens also required constant...dipping...which meant inconsistent ink flow as the ink would run out every few words and have to be re-dipped.
Dipping frequently caused ink blotches and splatters.
Ultimately, dip pens required a great deal of skill to make, they were messy, and they were inconsistent unless in the most skilled hands.
With all these challenges, it is easy to understand the need for fountain pens.
Why were fountain pens invented?
Fountain pens were invented to create a writing instrument that would provide continuous writing without constantly dipping the pen in new ink.
A continuously writing pen would also allow anyone to write without having to acquire skills cutting quills properly and extra equipment necessary to write (quill, ink, knife, etc...).
So who finally made this novel idea a reality?
Who invented the first fountain pen?
It is unknown who actually invented the "first" fountain pen, but it is often credited to Arab Egypt in the 10th century.
Long before the first patent was filed by Frederick Fölsch, inventors sought to crack the mystery of a continuous writing instrument.
Prototypes of the fountain pen
The first historical record of the fountain pen comes from c.974 when Fatimid Caliph Al-Mu'izz li-Din Allah requested a pen that would not leak and stain his hands and clothes. He was given a reservoir pen that would spill ink when it was held upside down.
The great Leonardo Da Vinci may have also invented a fountain pen. Da Vinci's journals show drawings of a reservoir pen that wrote using gravity and capillary action.
Though no evidence survives that the pen was ever constructed, some historians have noted that the writing in his subsequent journals shows none of the tell-tale evidence of a dip pen (inconsistent ink flow and ink flooding). The consistency of his writing line has led some to believe he did create and use a fountain pen.
When were fountain pens first used?
References to fountain pens being used in Europe begin in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The first fountain pens were often referred to as "reservoir pens". The writing points were made of quills, silver, or steel.
Early European reservoir pens
In 1636, Daniel Schwenter combined two quills together with a cork to seal the end and hold ink.
By the mid-1600 reports began to circulate about Parisian craftsmen selling a "silver metal pen". Documents such as Samuel Pepys writings mention metal pens that "carry ink".
Problems with early fountain pens
Little changed about the reservoir pen for the next 150 years for two major reasons.
First, inks were highly corrosive and would rapidly eat away at any metal components of the pen.
Second and more importantly, there was no proper understanding of how air pressure affects ink flow which meant a consistent, steady ink flow was still a mystery.
These reservoir pens were just as impractical (if not more so) as dip pens.
They constantly leaked, were prone to the ink clogging the pen, corroded, and were messy to refill. Pens also had to be loaded with an eyedropper.
When were modern fountain pens invented?
In 1809, models of the fountain pen began circulating again.
What was the major shift that made innovations of the fountain pen possible?
A better understanding of how air pressure affects ink flow.
Air Pressure and Fountain Pens
In order to get a steady flow of ink out of a filled chamber, the air pressing on the opening must have a place to flow. Air will act like a seal against a small hole, preventing liquid from leaving.
But if a second hole is presented at the other end of the chamber, the air has a place to move to. Air will enter through the first opening and move out through the second, pulling the liquid out of the chamber.
Harnessing the flow of ink by using air would ultimately be the biggest impact on fountain pens becoming functional, popular writing instruments.
With this discovery, a rapid succession of patents filed throughout Europe, each offering a new development.
Fountain Pen Patents and Innovations
Frederick Fölsch filed the first patent in England in May for an improved fountain pen that allows ink to flow through the pen.
Joseph Bramah filed another patent in September that made changes to the ink feeder.
John Jacob Parker filed a patent in 1832 that allowed fountain pens to "self-fill" with a piston screw ink cartridge that would draw ink inside the pen barrel. This meant the end of manual eyedrop filling.
Industrial manufacturing also allowed cheap steel pen nibs to be mass produced in Birmingham, England. Steel nibs rusted very quickly when exposed to ink so slip-in nibs became the order of the day since they could be bought in bulk and replaced easily.
Despite the numerous patents and changes being made to fountain pen design, it took three major developments to herald in what would become the widely popular modern fountain pen.
Three inventions that made the modern fountain pen
The Iridium Tipped Gold Nib
The discovery of anti-corrosive iridium (a member of the platinum family) created an alternative to corrosive steel nibs.
Iridium was rare, but taking a gold nib (which was also anti-corrosive, but too soft to handle the wear and tear of writing) and tipping the point in iridium (a hard metal) gave the perfect mix of a flexible nib that would adapt to movement (the gold) with a durable tip that would not require constant nib changing (the iridium).
The invention of hard rubber or ebonite offered the perfect material for the body of the fountain pen.
Hard rubber was smooth, durable, and resistant to ink corrosion unlike a metal pen.
It was also cheap to manufacture and readily available.
Free Flowing Ink
Lastly, free flowing ink which moved through pens better than the previous sediment filled ink infamous for clogging and ruining pens.
There was only one more innovation that made the fountain pen the successful, mass marketable pen born in 1884.
Even with a better understanding of the role air pressure plays in ink flow and the changes made to the fountain pen before 1884, controlling the flow of ink out of the pen was still a major setback. Ink flow was notoriously unreliable and finnicky.
Who invented the fountain pen in 1884?
Lewis Waterman invented the modern fountain pen in 1884 by harnessing capillary action to smoothly pull ink from the reservoir, through the feed, out of the nib.
Waterman added three grooved sections to the feed and a hole to the nib. Gravity would bring the ink out of the reservoir, while the three grooved sections meant the ink would be drawn and held in those grooves.
Capillary action works through adhesion and cohesion. Liquid adheres to a solid surface and coheres to itself so it does not pool at the tip of the pen.
Once the nib touched paper, the liquid adhered to the grooves would be pulled through cohesion onto the paper.
This meant ink no longer got stick in the reservoir or pooled at the tip because the flow could be steadily controlled.
By harnessing capillary action, Waterman created the first truly usable modern fountain pen. In fact, vintage Waterman pens still write and are used by collectors today.
Innovations to the modern fountain pen
Changes and innovations continued now that the major setback of fountain pens was solved.
Each pen inventor and manufacturer worked to solve some recurring issue with the fountain pen.
Self-filling systems like the piston filler, squeeze filler, lever filler, and disposable ink cartridges hit the market.
The creation of celluloid (which was cheaper, more durable, and more customizable) replaced hard rubber as the construction material of pens.
New inks were developed that were less corrosive and more vibrant.
Tweaks to feeders, nib shapes and materials, and pen design lead the fountain pen to quickly dominate as the writing instrument of choice in the Western world.
When did fountain pens replace dip pens?
By World War I, fountain pens were more commonly used by the masses than dip pens, although dip pens were still used in schools until the 1960s when ballpoint pen production began surpassing dip and fountain pens.
It was the invention of the ballpoint pen that actually put the nail in the coffin of the dip pen, but the impact of fountain pens left its mark as one of the leading forms of writing instruments.
When did fountain pens become popular?
Fountain pens peaked in popularity from the 1900s to the 1960s when the ballpoint pen surpassed the fountain pen.
Is the fountain pen still used today?
The fountain pen is still in use today.
Even with the popularity of the ballpoint pen outpacing the fountain pen by the 1960s, fountain pens are still commonly used throughout the world.
In fact, many grammar schools in European countries like Germany, Switzerland, and France require the use of fountain pens.
In the United States, fountain pen use is entirely preference. If smooth ink flow and connected writing is preferred, it is hard to find a better, more reliable pen than the fountain pen.
What is the oldest fountain pen?
The oldest fountain pen in the world is the M. Bion fountain pen, designed by Nicholas Bion in 1702.
Are fountain pens making a comeback?
Fountain pens are not so much making a comeback as they have been a constant, steady market since the advent of the ballpoint pen.
Though not as popular as the ballpoint or even the rollerball, fountain pen users have continued to create a demanding market for new fountain pens as well as antiques.
Vintage pens have actually grown in popularity over the past decade as more and more people are collecting, repairing and using antique fountain pens.
The history of the fountain pen is not a cut and dry story of one individual discovering a new world changing technology.
It is instead the story of hundreds of people over a thousand years slowing learning, innovating, and reinventing until at last the modern fountain pen was born.
With each innovation and new discovery, the fountain pen morphed and changed to be a beautiful example of what the collaborative work of people can be.
What was your favorite innovation or change to the fountain pen?Leave a comment below!