Several years ago during my poor college days, I found a Mont Blanc fountain pen. It was lodged between the cushions of a sofa at a cafe, amongst the muffin crumbs and paper clips. I did what any good student would do: I marched right up to the counter, asked for a coffee,… and put the pen in my pocket.
Yeah, I kept it. It was a nice pen. A really nice pen. I’d always thought that fancy writing instruments were gifts for “dads and grads,” or fat bankers. For weeks, though, I was like a 20-year-old with his first cigar, inviting silent judgment from fellow scribes for seeming too “elevated”. Still, I whipped it out for in-class essays, pushed away plastic pens to sign credit card slips, and eventually used it to sign a check deposit for an apartment, wanting to give the landlord a sign that, “not to worry, I’m gonna be a serious pay-on-time” kind of kid. I even bought my first suit with the notion that the pen would be promoted from jean jacket to woolen breast pocket, that potential employers would instantly give me twice the pay the last guy was offered.
Like most young gents my age, I knew at least this much: the fountain pen was a sign of refinement, professionalism, and craftsmanship. It was also a mark of one’s word, which is why all those world figures sign historic contracts and treaties with such a writing instrument. Most of all, it just plain feels good to use and glides across the page like water off a duck’s back. The secret’s all in the nib, the metal tip that is usually made of steel with a gold overlay (to resist corrosion from ink) and a bead of iridium alloy on the end (for durability), and the feed, which delivers just the right amount of ink from a reservoir inside the barrel.Â Good pens will have nibs that flex just the right amount to deliver a steady stream of ink down the two tines.
When Lewis Waterman, an insurance salesman plagued by inkblots, introduced the first practical fountain pen in 1884, he had no idea that the fountain pen would eventually become an objet d’art.
His pen allowed air to move ink down a multi-channel feed connected to a reservoir (that was hand-filled with an eyedropper). Though various fountain pens had been around in some form for over a hundred years, Waterman’s version greatly reduced the chance of leakage, and insurance salesmen across the globe joined hands in one unending song of praise.
Waterman’s success inspired others to capitalize on the new innovation. In 1897, another entrepreneur, Roy Conklin, made the eyedropper obsolete when he introduced the crescent filler, a pen with a rather unsightly metal arch that, when pressed, drew ink into a pliant rubber sac inside the barrel. In the early part of the 20th century, companies like Scheaffer and Parker added major improvements by making the internal filling systems much more user friendly, and ultimately, less messy. Cartridges arrived in 1936, when Waterman’s French subsidiary, JiF Waterman, made the glass cartridge readily available, and eliminated the need to constantly refill.
The day that Mont Blanc fell into my hot little hand, I unscrewed the barrel, replaced the empty cartridge with one bought at the campus bookstore, and went on my merry way. It felt pretty damn smart; I was a college kid, after all. And I was taking an important first step towards merging a future writing career with a healthy concern for the environment. According to the EPA, about 1.6 billion disposable pens end up in land fills every year. Don’t know who’s doing the counting, but I’d hate to be the guy who has that job.
Leading image: Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act with Martin Luther King, Jr. watching. July 2, 1964.