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From the Crypt VII: How Smart Was Walter Sheaffer, Really?

(This page published March 8, 2023)

Reference Info Index | Glossopedia  ]

This is one of a series of short articles that I posted on an Internet forum in 2012. The Internet being a graveyard, I’ve exhumed them for preservation on this site.

Everybody knows that Walter A. Sheaffer revolutionized fountain pen design by inventing the lever filler in 1908, right?

Umm, no, actually, not so much.

It’s true that Sheaffer did receive U.S. Patent No 896,861 in 1908 for his lever filler. But the design was really pretty convoluted.


The lever had a notch at its long end, and there was a locking ring — sort of like the ring on a Conklin Crescent-Filler. The ring had a notch that would allow the lever to be raised when the notch was aligned with the lever, and one side of the notch was a ramp that rode under the end of the lever when the ring was turned counterclockwise, to engage the end of the lever and raise it above the surface of the barrel so it could be grasped. When the ring was turned clockwise, its notch no longer aligned with the lever, and the ring would then keep the lever from being raised. Not exactly earth-shattering, is it — especially considering that Sheaffer didn’t actually invent the lever filler in the first place.

If Sheaffer didn’t invent the lever filler, who did? That honor goes to John Barnes, whose design, protected by U.S. Patent No 726,495, became public in 1903.


There are a couple of significant differences between Barnes’ and Sheaffer’s levers. First, Barnes’ lever doesn’t lie flush with the surface of the barrel. More importantly, Barnes’ lever points in the opposite direction from Sheaffer’s. This means that despite its slight protrusion from the barrel surface, it cannot be caught on the edge of the user’s pocket when the pen is put away. Sheaffer’s lever relies on its locking ring to prevent its being caught on the edge of the pocket.

Barnes’ lever has tabs sticking out sideways at the small end, and it uses a pressure bar whose sides are formed into channels so that the pressure bar cannot become misaligned from the lever. Sheaffer’s design uses a flat pressure bar that can slip sidewise; it relies on a more secure anchor at the distal end of the pressure bar than Barnes’ lever needs. Later, Waterman and Wahl-Eversharp both used channeled pressure bars.

So how did Sheaffer get from that crude lever to the lever that helped to make his company a success? He went back to the drawing board, and in 1914 he was awarded U.S. Patent No 1,114,052 for a new lever shape that featured a split short end to permit adjustment of the lever to compensate for manufacturing irregularities. This lever also had its short end bent downward slightly so that when the lever was at rest against the side of the barrel, the short end was a little below the surface and couldn’t readily be pressed accidentally (which could cause a drop or two of ink to oodle out of the pen).


But even then, he was relying on the elasticity of the sac to keep the lever flat against the barrel. It took another try, which later that same year earned U.S. Patent No. 1,118,240. This one was for a sprung two-piece pressure bar, and that was the final key to the success of Sheaffer’s lever filler and, by extension, his company.


At least two years before Sheaffer began selling pens at all, the Whitney-Richards Company was out there in the market, advertising and selling a true lever filler, with a flat-lying lever like Sheaffer’s, under U.S. Patent No 1,005,387. This design, by William A. Whitney, didn’t reach the Patent Office before Sheaffer’s did, but it definitely beat Sheaffer’s out of the gate.

How smart was Walter Sheaffer, really? Although he wasn’t first off the block, or even second, he does seem to have brought home the winner, and that means he was a pretty smart cookie.

Did You Enjoy This Article?

Here are links to the other six articles in this series.

The information in this article is as accurate as possible, but you should not take it as absolutely authoritative or complete. If you have additions or corrections to this page, please consider sharing them with us to improve the accuracy of our information.

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