Volume 14, Issue 40 ~ October 5 - October 11, 2006

Burton on the Bay

By Bill Burton

You Don’t Know What You’re Missing

A fine pen brings out its writer’s wisdom and flavor

No man was more foolish when he had not a pen in his hand, or more wise when he had.

–Samuel Johnson, 1709-1784

Sam Johnson was insulting Oliver Goldsmith, but there is more truth therein than his put-down of a contemporary. Methinks a fine pen in a writer’s hand brings out wisdom and flavor.

A tongue works faster; sometimes too fast, and once the words are spoken there are times the speaker wishes they were not. Conversely, the penman or woman cannot, no matter how quickly writing, outpace the mind. The slower speed lessens the risk of being misunderstood. Or worse.

Moreover, the penman has captured words that could otherwise slip from memory and can bring them back as they poured from the mind by merely reading what was written.

The writer with the fine pen is more deliberate, for mind and pen work together as one. When the mind races, scribbling can save what the brain pours forth, then decipher the scribbling sufficiently to recapture the gist of fleeing thoughts.

Put a good pen in a good writer’s hand, and there is time to filter one’s thoughts. The keyboard of a computer is more akin to the swiftness of the tongue; not infrequently in e-mails the words pour forth hurriedly, followed by little or no editing, refining or otherwise enhancing what is written.

But this is a busy world inhabited by busy people inclined to take the easy way out; no time for taking pen in hand, not when words can punched out in jig time on a computer — or even quicker via cell phone from the family car. Other than via e-mail, the written word is on the ropes; the handwritten word is virtually dead.

One wonders what it will be like some years down the road. Will future generations be deprived of the satisfaction of taking a comfortable pen in hand to write words that flow as smoothly from the mind as does ink on fine stationery, leaving an aura of the personal, radiating warmth for both writer and reader?

Ode to the Fountain Pen

By comfortable pen, this writer is not referring to a ball-point writing instrument or even a smooth roller-ball; instead the finest thing anyone can write with: a good fountain pen, the ink flowing effortless to a fine nib of gold to put words on paper.

Methinks there are few day-to-day things in life more pleasurable, more satisfying, than writing with a good fountain pen. The ball-point in the pocket, purse or the mug next to the phone in the kitchen is for writing notes to one’s self or others in the household.

How Fountain Pens Went Obsolete

The introduction of the ball-point in 1945, only months after World War II ended, was the beginning of the end of the dominance of the fountain pen. The first of the challengers carried the Reynolds name, and its debut wasn’t that impressive. At least not to me.

I originally thought it was the answer for a sailor who wrote home often and moved around a lot; no bottle of ink to carry in a sea bag, no spills, no ink-smeared Navy whites or hands: Everything in one pen. I paid nearly seven bucks for it, as I recall. The ink was a light blue, and after 10 letters or so it skipped. Not long thereafter, it died. I don’t recall refills being available, so I went back to my trusty Sheaffer fountain pen I purchased after seeing it advertised in National Geographic.

A few years later as a fledgling newspaperman, I switched to a soft lead pencil, the standby for reporters who took notes on pages of folded copy paper, which was rough for a fountain pen and so thin the ink bled through. Fountain pens were virtually worthless in wet weather. Also, at the most inopportune times a fountain pen would go dry. Replaceable cartridges weren’t yet around.

Eventually, ballpoint problems were solved, and the fountain pen became endangered. Except among those who wanted fine writing instruments; what could be more impressive in business or club circles than to whip out a Montblanc 147 Traveler? That’s class.

But class comes at a price. The manufacturers of fine pens today make especially formulated ink to match their pens and warn consumers other inks could lack compatibility, lead to clogging and other woes. For a bottle of their fine ink, we pay as much or more than what a serviceable pen cost not too long ago. Who remembers when ink cost a dime a bottle?

Their Day in the Sun

From the Dark Ages until the 1800s, the quill pen was the common writing instrument, requiring constant dipping of the pen in ink, and not infrequent re-sharpening of the point. Can you picture in 1776 Thomas Jefferson having to dip into the ink pot before he could finish the first sentence: We hold these Truths to be self-evident that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights …

Truth is, had the colonists been up with the times, Jefferson could have avoided frequent and distracting pen-to-the-pot motions. A forerunner to the fountain pen had been in the works for decades. The inside of the quill was filled with ink, and by pressure on the pen body, ink was sent to the point. With some models, shaking the pen would send the ink to the business end.

It wasn’t until 1809 that the first fountain pens of the basic type we know today came on the scene, followed by many advances the remainder of the century. In 1819, John Scheffer’s Penographic Writing System gave one the choice of a quill or metal nib, advertising that one could write with it for 10 to 12 hours without refilling.

In 1832, John Jacob Parker, founder of still popular Parker pens, came up with a self-filling pen. Until then, ink had to be poured into a pen’s reservoir, which could be a messy job.

In 1884, the fountain pen as we know it today first came on the scene when L.L. Waterman (today, Waterman Pens) came up with a pen that sent ink to the nib by capillary action for smooth and even writing. A New York insurance salesman, Waterman got into the pen business, so legend has it, after he lost a big sale when his pen with the old gravity flow leaked all over the contract. By the time another was drawn up, someone else got the sale.

Leaks in fine fountain pens of today are rare, but so is their use. I dare say there are many millions of middle age downward who have not once used a fountain pen; a ball-point will do. They don’t know what they’re missing: luxurious writing. Enough said.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.