By: Carolyn Kurtz
Originally published in the WADE (World Association of Document Examiners) Exchange in January 1998, Issue 218Tel: (215) 357-3083
Before the fountain pen began to be widely used in the late 1800s, writing was mainly done at a desk with a steel nib pen that constantly had to be dipped into an inkwell. The fountain pen, which was designed to carry its own ink supply, brought greater convenience and portability to the writing process. Sales of fountain pens surged during World War I as soldiers purchased the pens to use in writing letters from the battlefields.
Today's renewed interest in the fountain pen can probably be attributed to several reasons, such as recent improvements that have made the fountain pen easier and more convenient to use, the current image of the fountain pen as a status symbol, and nostalgia. Vintage fountain pens are among the most popular collectibles today.
The fountain pen is basically composed of a nib, ink reservoir, dispensing system, and housing. Line thickness can be varied because of the flexibility of the nib, allowing the writer to create a variety of stylish script. The pen's disadvantages are the slow-drying fluid ink and the delicacy of the pen itself.
The pen works by pressure on the nib and movement across the paper, separating the nib down the middle, which then allows the ink to flow to the paper. The nib (which can be made from stainless steel, iridium, gold, or platinum) has a slot and pierce hole (the hole at the top of the slit), actually dividing it into two tines, which controls the flow of the ink by capillary action.
Capillary action is what controls the ink flow from the ink cartridge down to the paper, only as fast as needed to form the letters. When the surface of the ink is raised because of the great concentration of ink molecules (which are attracted to each other) on the surface of the ink, this creates surface tension and capillary action. The ink molecules are attracted to the inner surface of the tube of the fountain pen, which causes them to be drawn through the feed (a system of narrow tubes) to the nib. The capillary action also controls the flow of ink down through the slot on the nib onto the paper.
There are air passages in the feed to control the air pressure so that it is equal inside and out to help balance the ink flow. To prevent flooding of the pen, there is a feature called a "collector," positioned close to the nib, which is a series of parallel spaces or notches to accommodate extra ink in case the air pressure fluctuates.
Parallel "tracks," which are caused by the abrasion of the split nib against the paper, make the paper more porous along this double line, so that the paper absorbs more ink in this area than in the middle of the stroke. These tracks are more noticeable on the curved strokes, although they are not as pronounced today because of the decreased flexibility of the modern nib. These same nib marks will often show embossing on the back of the paper. The shading of the strokes varies, depending on the angle of writing and the flexibility and width of the nib. In the past, fountain pens often failed to write on initial contact with the paper or leaked during the writing process, but these problems have been greatly reduced in modern pens.
Fountain pens have played an important part in American history. The presidential pen, a souvenir pen presented as a memento of some official presidential function (and often still a fountain pen), has become a popular collector's item.
A unique and interesting tradition in the White House, begun during the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and still in effect today, is the signing of important legislation using a different pen for each letter of the president's signature. Originally, Esterbrook fountain pens were used, but there was a switch to Parker ballpoint pens during the Johnson administration. Currently, a cartridge-style ballpoint is used for William J. Clinton's signature. Each of these pens is then placed in a box bearing the name of the president and the presidential seal, and the pens are presented to various individuals who played an important role leading to passage of that particular legislation.
As technology of the fountain pen improves, its unique features are likely to make it a popular writing instrument into the twenty-first century, as well as a popular item for collectors.
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Carolyn Kurtz, is a Board Certified Forensic Document Examiner with over 26 years of private practice experience. Ms. Kurtz has been a Member of National Association of Document Examiners since 1984. She is an Expert Witness for both Plaintiff and Defense counsel.
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