A fountain pen is a nib pen that, unlike its predecessor, the dip pen, contains an internal reservoir of liquid ink. The pen draws ink from the reservoir through a feed to the nib and deposits it on paper via a combination of gravity and capillary action. Filling the reservoir with ink may be achieved manually, via the use of a Pasteur pipette (eyedropper) or syringe, or via an internal filling mechanism which creates suction (for example, through a piston mechanism) or a vacuum to transfer ink directly through the nib into the reservoir. Some pens employ removable reservoirs in the form of pre-filled ink cartridges.
An early historical mention of what appears to be a reservoir pen dates back to the 10th century. According to Al-Qadi al-Nu’man (d. 974) in his ”Kitab al-Majalis wa ‘l-musayarat”, the Fatimid caliph Al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah demanded a pen that would not stain his hands or clothes, and was provided with a pen that held ink in a reservoir, allowing it to be held upside-down without leaking. There is compelling evidence that a working fountain pen was constructed and used during the Renaissance by artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo’s journals contain drawings with cross-sections of what appears to be a reservoir pen that works by both gravity and capillary action. Historians also took note of the fact that the handwriting in the inventor’s surviving journals is of a consistent contrast throughout, rather than the characteristic fading pattern typical of a quill pen caused by expending and re-dipping. While no physical item survives, several working models were reconstructed in 2011 by artist Amerigo Bombara that have since been put on display in museums dedicated to Leonardo.
The fountain pen was available in Europe in the 17th century, and is shown by contemporary references. In Deliciae Physico-Mathematicae (a 1636 magazine), German inventor Daniel Schwenter described a pen made from two quills. One quill served as a reservoir for ink inside the other quill. The ink was sealed inside the quill with cork. Ink was squeezed through a small hole to the writing point. In 1663 Samuel Pepys referred to a metal pen “to carry ink”. Noted Maryland historian Hester Dorsey Richardson (1862–1933) documented a reference to “three silver fountain pens, worth 15 shillings” in England during the reign of Charles II, c. 1649–1685. By the early 18th century such pens were already commonly known as “fountain pens”. Hester Dorsey Richardson also found a 1734 notation made by Robert Morris the elder in the ledger of the expenses of Robert Morris the younger, who was at the time in Philadelphia, for “one fountain pen”.
Progress in developing a reliable pen was slow until the mid-19th century because of an imperfect understanding of the role that air pressure plays in the operation of pens. Furthermore, most inks were highly corrosive and full of sedimentary inclusions. The Romanian inventor Petrache Poenaru received a French patent on May 25, 1827, for the invention of the first fountain pen with a barrel made from a large swan quill.
In 1828, Josiah Mason improved a cheap and efficient slip-in nib in Birmingham, England, which could be added to a fountain pen and in 1830, with the invention of a new machine, William Joseph Gillott, William Mitchell, and James Stephen Perry devised a way to mass manufacture robust, cheap steel pen nibs (Perry & Co). This boosted the Birmingham pen trade and by the 1850s, more than half the steel-nib pens manufactured in the world were made in Birmingham. Thousands of skilled craftsmen were employed in the industry. Many new manufacturing techniques were perfected, enabling the city’s factories to mass-produce their pens cheaply and efficiently. These were sold worldwide to many who previously could not afford to write, thus encouraging the development of education and literacy.