Who invented the fountain pen?

Despite what you may read in various books, encyclopedias, magazine articles, and other sources, the origins of the fountain pen are lost in the mists of time. The earliest mentions of fountain pens go back hundreds of years; one of the earliest citations found to date is from the the 10th century.

The earliest surviving fountain pens date to the early 18th (or possibly later 17th) century; they are made of metal, and most used cut quills as nibs, although gold-nibbed examples are also known.  These are often called "Bion" pens, after the French royal instrument maker Nicolas Bion (1652-1733) who described them in a famous treatise first published in 1709.  Bion made no claim to be their inventor, nor is there any evidence that he ever made such pens himself -- let alone, held a patent on them.

From the beginning of the 19th century, the number of fountain pen designs patented and produced began to multiply. The first English fountain pen patent was granted to Frederick Fölsch in May 1809, followed by Joseph Bramah's feed patent of September 1809. John Scheffer's patent of 1819 was the first design to see commercial success, with a number of surviving examples of his "Penographic" known. Another noteworthy pioneer design was John Jacob Parker's, patented in 1832 -- a self-filler with a screw-operated piston. Three subsequent advances, however, paved the way for the fountain pen's widespread acceptance: the invention of hard rubber (a naturally-derived plastic, resistant to chemicals, easily machined, and relatively cheap); the availability of iridium-tipped gold nibs; and improved inks, not laden with clogging sediment. All three factors fell into place around the middle of the century; it was in the later 1870s and 1880s, however, that fountain pen production took off in earnest.

Notable players of the era included Mabie Todd, John Holland, Wirt, and Waterman; New York City was the main center of activity, having long been the center of the gold nib trade. The battle for market dominance was fierce, and was ultimately won as much by aggressive marketing as by technical innovation. "History is written by the victors" applies to commercial as well as military conflicts. Decades later, once it had overshadowed all its earliest rivals, the Waterman company boldly began to claim to have invented the first practical fountain pen – a claim which is now as widely accepted as it is false.

Lewis Edson Waterman's first pens were conventional in design, and while his original patented feed was undoubtedly effective, it was by no means the first designed to harness the principle of capillary attraction. To the extent it represented an advance, it was incremental – not a true breakthrough of the sort that turns an unworkable idea into a useful application. The popularity of the instruments produced by Waterman's precursors is evidence enough that they were eminently practical, even if they weren't the equal of instruments to come, and it is surely no accident that the Waterman company's claim of having made the first practical fountain pen was not trumpeted until well after its founder's death -- indeed, after virtually all the pioneers of the 1870s and 1880s were safely off the scene.

The slipperiness of the term "practical" is a big reason why the Waterman claim has endured so long. By modern day standards, Waterman's original pen would itself no longer be considered a practical writing instrument. But practicality judged in hindsight is a constantly moving target: with the adoption of self-fillers, penmakers declared eyedroppers to be impractical, and similar redefinitions of practicality took place with the advent of the plastic ink cartridge and of cheap, reliable ballpoints. If judged by the standards of the day, however, the fountain pen has been a practical tool for over 200 years, evolving over an extended period in a long series of gradual improvements. Mass production and widespread adoption did not take place until the last decades of the 19th and first decades of the 20th centuries, which has certainly fed the notion that previous fountain pens really didn't work. But there are many reasons why a new or not so new technology becomes generally accepted at a given point in time, with pricing, marketing, consumer needs, and fashion being fully as important as how refined that particular technology happens to be.