Writing Instruments

his article by Floyd Stuart is a slightly edited version of one that first appeared as a two-part series in the Northfield News, Northfield, Vermont, and is published here through the courtesy of that newspaper.

Letters Home and Trench Pens

On Friday the thirteenth, September 1918, the second day of the American Expeditionary Force offensive at Saint-Mihiel in northeastern France, a German shell exploded, sending a jagged metal fragment tearing deep into the thigh of First Lieutenant Edward Lukert. He would later write: “Bullets are not bad, clean and small, but chunks of iron from high explosives are dreadful.” While recovering in a hospital in Ward 13, Bed 13, and attended by a nurse with number 13 on her uniform, Ed Lukert uncapped his fountain pen. He set down the date “October 13, 1918,” and then “Dearheart,” and began a letter to his wife.

Pencil, fountain pen, and typewriter — these were the writing implements during World War I. Clerical staff and officers not right on the front lines would have access to a typewriter. Soldiers in the field found pencils convenient to carry, but pencil lead was less bright than ink and smudged easily, and a good fountain pen was highly prized, especially for diary and letter writing. A doughboy’s life was often furious action — constructing and repairing fortifications, charging across no man’s land into a wall of bullets, and fighting hand-to-hand in trenches — followed by long stretches of tedium, during which a favorite occupation was writing the folks back home. Governments wanted their service men and women to receive and write letters because mail, then as now, was a major morale booster for the armed forces. In 1918, for example, the 4,000 soldiers of Britain’s Army Postal Service were delivering twelve and a half million letters a week to their comrades on the Western Front. One could say that during the Great War the fountain pen was not an insignificant weapon.

 

Instruction sheet
This is a page from the instruction sheet that came with a Waterman safety pen in the 1920s. The pen user would put the cap on the knob at the end of the barrel and turn the cap to the right, which extended the nib from the barrel (where the ink was stored) and made a seal so the ink would not leak out. (Photo courtesy of Richard Binder)

When Ed Lukert wrote his “Dearheart,” he may very well have used the soldier’s favored instrument, the “safety pen,” which had been invented in the 1890s. The safety pen was an “eyedropper,” that is, you unscrewed the part holding the nib or writing point and used an eyedropper to fill the barrel with ink. Over time, the threads of a conventional eyedropper could wear or crack and then the joint leaked. The nib of a safety pen retracted into the barrel, and the design created a leak proof seal when the pen was capped and when the nib was fully screwed out for writing. Fountain pens of the era did not always write when first uncapped and you might have to shake out an ink blob to get it started. But the safety’s nib, stored in the ink-filled barrel, was primed and ready to write when extended. In 1907, the Waterman company introduced its version of the safety, which was widely imitated. During the Great War, Ed Lukert would have had to shell out $2.50 for the lowest priced Waterman or Parker safety, and if he paid twenty-five cents extra for the Parker, he could get a “Parker Patent Clip held in place like a washer” to secure the pen to his shirt pocket. Well, “safety” was sometimes too optimistic a description for this type of pen, for the seal was not infallibly leak proof. And if Ed Lukert in Ward 13, Bed 13, did not hold his pen perfectly upright while opening or closing it or filling it with an eyedropper, then his nurse with number 13 on her tunic would certainly have scowled at her patient and his bedclothes covered with ink.

As Dearheart read her husband’s letter, she learned that Ed and the more than one hundred men under his command had dug trenches in open ground for a whole afternoon under a German artillery barrage. Less than twenty-four hours later, Ed had only thirty men left. “All these things — wide-eyed dead men gazing at you with a cold stare, wounded men trying to suppress groans, the smell of sulfur and the sickening stench of blood in the shelter almost made me wish they [the Germans] would close on us and capture what few remained after the rush.” The lieutenant and his outnumbered men fought gallantly, retired to a wood, and held their position until Lukert was ordered: “Abandon dead and wounded. Withdraw to right rear and fight your way back.” Ed wrote his Dearheart: “Well, we picked out the wounded I thought might live, and we carried them back, or rather dragged them. Those I thought would die anyhow, we left where they were, and the others we piled in a shelter and closed the sand bagged door.” Dearheart read that after dawn the next day, the Americans had retaken the lost ground and recovered the men left behind: most were still alive.

Soldiers who endured days on the front lines like Ed Lukert’s preferred the safety pen because it was sturdier than the conventional eyedropper and held more ink than the lever filler, which had a rubber ink sac that could rupture and a filling mechanism that could break in the field, where there were no pen repair shops just around the next foxhole. Men at the front carried the essentials — weapons, playing cards, photos of loved ones, ammunition, water, gas masks, cigarettes — and glass eyedroppers and ink bottles were low on their list of things to pack. Also quartermasters, busy supplying the troops with food, clothes, and equipment, were not eager to lug millions of ink bottles to the battlefield. So ink makers produced powdered ink and packed it in tins; they also stamped the powder into ink pellets and tablets. In 1916, the Parker Pen Company, quick to sense a business opportunity, developed the “Trench Pen,” which a year later the U. S. War Department ordered in quantity. The Trench Pen was a conventional safety pen that had a compartment for storing ink tablets. A doughboy could pop an ink pill in the barrel of his pen, fill the barrel with water (all too easily found in trenches and shell holes), and write the folks back home. Parker sold a box of thirty-six ink tablets for ten cents. Many fountain pen companies in the United States and Europe soon came out with their own version of the “trench pen.”

 

 

Petrache Poenaru patented the fountain pen on May 25th, 1827, he invented the fountain pen while he was in school in Paris and wanted a way to continue note taking without stopping to dip for ink.

Second only to Gutenberg’s invention of mechanical movable type that started the printing revolution, the invention of the fountain pens allowed writers to write without dipping a quill in ink every few letters.

It’s amazing when you think about it. Before the fountain pen was mass produced, you had to be able to afford to write. Why? Well you had to be able to afford to pay a quill cutter to cut your quill with a razor at the proper angle and sharpen it after a few pages of writing.

I thought about this the other day when I noticed a pen discarded on the street, today people toss them out or drop them and don’t even bother picking them up.

 

 

 

 

 

“If I were answering a question about who invented a fountain pen close to what we use today…. Well that’s different.”

 

There was a struggle to invent a fountain pen that wasn’t ink-starved and wouldn’t blob ink all over your paperwork. With the advent of a tube feeder or bladder to hold the ink, people didn’t yet understand how to regulate the ink supply.

Petrache Poenaru

Petrache Poenaru patented the fountain pen

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fountain pen patent collage

Collage of Early Fountain Pen Patents

This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923. See this page for further explanation.

Lewis Waterman (Founder of Waterman pens) is commonly an answer to who invented the fountain pen, but his 1884 patent was for an improvement on the existing pen; Waterman patented a design in which ink was fed to the nib by gravity and air being drawn into the reservoir to allow a constant flow of ink without flooding.

Several early attempts at nibs (the tip of the pen that does the writing) have little channels that held some ink but weren’t a reliable way to regulate the ink coming down from the reservoir.

Once people understood that air needed to travel into the reservoir in order to allow ink to flow down the feed to the nib with some control the modern nib and feed system were mastered.

The original nibs were made of steel which corroded with the inks of the time.

Fine writing instruments evolved with gold nibs that were iridium tipped because the iridium is a hard metal that allows for many years of writing without wearing down and the gold was flexible enough to give lettering some character.

After the modern gold and iridium tipped nibs were invented, the ink filling mechanisms evolved and retractable nibs were introduced. The fountain pens of today are largely iterations of the pens made in the early 20th century with modernized filling mechanisms.

Fountain pens have a beautiful history and brought writing to the masses.  Petrache Poenaru, who invented the fountain pen, was just the beginning of the evolution of fine writing instruments. Check out a few reviews for yourself to find the best fountain pen for you!

Thank you for visiting BestFountainPen.com, your readership is a constant gift and I hope you start your pen collection today; you’ll love them as much as I do!