What distinguishes fountain pens from dip pens is their ability to carry their own ink supply. The advantage of this is fairly obvious, however, I think it became revolutionary. Carrying a pen became relatively simple (consider that the earliest fountain pens didn’t bother with pocket clips–now something that seems odd not to have).
While it sounds simple, the exchange of ink and air is a complicated bit of technology called a feed. While this is fascinating, it is also a fairly hidden attribute. An obvious difference among pens is getting the ink into the pen in the first place.
With this post, I’m starting a five-part series on fountain pen filling systems. In this first part, in addition to this introduction, I’ll cover eyedropper fillers. Subsequent posts will cover sack-and-spring, piston, and cartridge filling pens. I’ll wrap up with some experiments that did not go into widespread adoption.
The earliest fountain pens could not, on their own, fill themselves. Instead, a fairly simple mechanism was used: an eyedropper. The front part of the pen–the nib, feed, and section, would unscrew. the entire barrel would act as a chamber to hold ink, delivered by the aforementioned eyedropper. Then, the pen would be reassembled.
Above are two eyedropper fillers and an eyedropper. Both of the pens are from John Holland, a Cincinnati producer of pens that is no longer in business. The top pen is circa 1890; the bottom, 1907. The bottom pen has its section removed. The cap is posted in both pictures–neither one has a clip.
When I fill these pens, ink tends to seep out of the joint connecting the section to the barrel (yes, I do write with these pens on occasion). I’m not sure if that is function of age or of eyedropper fillers. This is cured by adding a bit of silicone grease to the threads. While it is effective, I have a hard time believing this was common in the drawers of the folks of the late nineteenth century.
The eyedropper era started to fade in the first decade or so of the twentieth century. This is where the innovation began.