(This page revised December 17, 2022)
There is an old riddle that asks, “When is a door not a door?” The answer is, “When it’s ajar.” (If you don’t get it, read the riddle and the answer aloud.) It’s a pretty silly riddle, but it offers a lead-in to my next riddle, which is not silly at all. “When is a pen that has a nib neither a dip pen nor a fountain pen?” And the answer? “When it’s a dip-less pen.”
It’s important to note that dip-less pens are not dipless. You do have to dip them, but you dip a dip-less pen less than you would dip a true dip pen. And depending on your usage style, i.e., if you don't write notes long enough to exhaust its capacity, you might not have to dip it at all. You can pick the pen up, write your note, and then park the pen again.
Dip-less pens obviously evolved from the combination of a dip pen and an inkwell in which to dip it, but in order to make the dip-less part of the equation work, a means is required to make the pen hold more ink than it would normally hold. Clip-on reservoirs were, and still are, available for attachment to dip nibs; and with a reservoir attached, a dip pen can write more than it could do without the reservoir. Some dip nibs, such as the Hunt Speedball nib shown here, have reservoirs attached at the factory.
Besides the need for frequent dipping, there is another disadvantage to using a dip pen, even with a reservoir attached to the nib: to get enough ink onto the nib, or into the reservoir, you have to dip the nib quite deeply into the inkwell and then, to remove the excess ink, wipe it gently across the rim of the inkwell as you withdraw it. If you are less than scrupulously careful, things can get messy. Designs for inkwells that included pen wipers existed at least as early as 1904; one example of these devices is shown by the following drawing from Irving C. Woodward’s U.S. Patent No 750,928:
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The Sengbusch Self-Closing Inkstand Company, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, did not immediately solve the problem of allowing the pen to be immersed only to just the right depth by using an inverted inkwell. Sengbusch’s desk base design featured a socket as for a fountain pen, with a top-filling inkwell beside it.
The inkwell in this set is a special “captive” version of the Sengbusch Self-Closing Inkstand (U.S. Patents Nos 726,194 and 726,195), which Gustav Sengbusch had patented in 1903 and which was, for several decades thereafter, a steady seller. The central element of its design was a float valve that kept the opening closed to prevent evaporation, opening only when the pen was inserted for dipping. See the drawing below. The float (callout 10) also limited the depth to which the pen could be dipped; more will be said on this point later.
The solution to the dip-dip-dip problem was twofold:
Add a device that can hold more ink than an ordinary reservoir, and
Keep the tip of the nib, up to the breather hole, in the ink whenever the pen is not in use.
The first half of the solution is simple: add a feed similar to that in a fountain pen. With its greater capillary surface, a feed can store more ink than a dip-nib reservoir, and it can deliver it in a more controlled fashion, producing neater results. Even better, it can make use of capillary action to draw ink upward into capillary space that would not otherwise be accessible, further increasing the ink load that the pen can carry. Gustav Sengbusch solved this part of the equation quite handily with U.S. Patent No 1,767,189, issued to him on June 30, 1930:
Sengbusch’s patent drawing shows a complete assembly of a nib, feed, and section, but the key element is the feed, which is tapered so that it will jam in place in the correspondingly tapered bore of the section but can still be removed should nib replacement become desirable or necessary. The feed also has huge open spaces in which a great quantity of ink can be retained. What it lacks is the usual channels of a fountain pen feed; they are simply not necessary. This design went to market as the Sengbusch Dipaday pen:
Other manufacturers approached the problem in much the same way. Esterbrook’s earliest version was embodied in its 5000- and 7000-series nibs. This design, U.S. Patent No 2,222,259 (issued in late 1940 to Leon H. Ashmore), is shown in the following photographs. It featured a nib with a small tab at its base, designed to lock into place by mating with a transverse groove near the back end of a feed that was otherwise similar to a fountain pen feed, complete with channels. The patent drawings show a small lever-operated cam, located on the underside of the feed and designed to wedge the nib and feed into place, but that part of the design did not make it into production.
Esterbrook later simplified the design, eliminating the channels and machining a rounded notch in the upper surface of the feed to match a formed “bump” on the under surface of the nib. The feed was also threaded, with the threads cut away where the nib would lie. This design, issued U.S. Patent No 2,601,846 in 1952 to Henry C. Klagges, was used with a revised version of the 5000-series nibs, and together the nib and feed (shown below) were interchangeable with the company’s immensely popular Renew-Point fountain pen nibs.
Klagges’ design was excellent, but we must return to Gustav Sengbusch for a system that appears to have been less prone to jamming should the ink in it be allowed to dry out. Nineteen years earlier, in 1933, Sengbusch patented the design (U.S. Patent No 1,915,338) that appeared as his company’s Handi-Pen:
The final Handi-Pen featured a feed (callout 10) with an angled surface on its underside, and a wedge piece (callout 17) that keyed against the feed. The nib had a dimple that matched a circular notch in the upper surface of the feed. Inserted together into the pen holder, these three parts were solid and reliable while also being easily removable. As shown in Figure 2 of Sengbusch’s patent drawing, the wedge protruded from the penholder’s section when the parts were assembled. Pushing the wedge against the edge of a desk or table (callout 18), as shown in Figure 3, released the friction that held the parts together, and they could all be removed for cleaning or nib replacement.
With the advantage of hindsight, having seen how the others did it, Bert Morris came off the blocks with a complete cartridge unit (U.S. Patent No 2,224,393) comprising a nib (callout 22), feed (callout 23), and housing (section). The section (callout S), when screwed into the pen holder, became the portion of the holder that engaged with the socket to hold the pen in alignment; this arrangement allowed the user to change nibs without ever touching one.
Interestingly, and notwithstanding the inclusion of a complete description of the nib unit and how it is manufactured, which makes it clear that no ink can pass into or out of the nib unit from the rear (where a fountain pen’s reservoir would be), the patent for Morris’ pen calls it a “Self-Filling Fountain Pen.” The section is made of celluloid and is bored completely through. It is sealed by solvent-welding a celluloid disk (callout 21) into its back end after the nib and feed have been installed and adjusted. The feed would also be made of celluloid; the patent describes welding it to the section after insertion to create an inseparable assembly. When the Model B Morriset arrived on the scene, the section and feed were made of injection-molded polystyrene (black and clear, respectively), which could also be solvent-welded.
The second half of the solution is less obvious. Woodward’s drawing shows that he had missed it: although the level of the ink in his dipping receptacle would not vary, he had no means for controlling the depth to which the pen was inserted except by allowing the tip of the nib to strike the bottom. At the outset, Senbgusch too failed to solve it. The float in his inkwell limited the depth to which the pen could be inserted, but that did not enforce a consistent dipping depth because the level of the ink in the inkwell will fall as ink was used. The following drawing, from U.S. Patent No 2,149,263, issued in 1939 to Leon H. Ashmore and George Trotman and assigned to the Esterbrook Steel Pen Company, shows the solution for this half of the puzzle:
In the Ashmore/Trotman inkwell, a bottle of ink is filled, inverted, and placed in a well with the bottle’s mouth covering a plug (callout 14, drawn to a larger scale in Figure 6). The plug has a pair of passages to meter ink and air flow (callouts 12 and 13, respectively). Ink will leak out of the bottle until its level rises to the level of the bottle’s mouth, and then it will stop. With a socket in which to park the pen so that its nib is immersed to the desired distance, the design is complete. As ink is used, a bubble of air will develop at the upper end of the plug’s air passage, and when the bubble is large enough to force its way to the surface inside the bottle, a little more ink will flow out through the ink passage to replace that which was used. The sizes and geometries of the two passages determine which is for air and which is for ink. This design reached the market as the first of Esterbrook’s Dip-Less inkwells, Model 401. It was soon supplanted by the Model 404 (U.S. Patent No D126,092, shown here), and soon thereafter the popular Model 407.
But why go to all this trouble? Why not just use a fountain pen? It turns out that there are excellent reasons to use a dip-less set. With a design like Morris’, almost an entire bottle of ink can be used before the reservoir needs refilling. The pen will be usable without interruption and without filling for 20–30 times as long as a fountain desk pen will write before requiring filling. Further, depending on how well or poorly the design of the fountain pen’s desk socket is executed, the fountain pen can dry out inconveniently or disgorge its entire ink supply messily into the socket.
In the case of the Morriset, there was a further advantage. The Morris company also sold Morriset ink, complete with the necessary metering device fitted as a plug under the bottle cap as shown in Bert M. Morris’ 1940 U.S. Patent No 2,188,828:
Because the air and ink passages in the plug (callouts 33 and 34, respectively) were of relatively small size, ink would not gush out during the process of inverting and installing the bottle; thus, replacing an empty ink bottle was quick and clean, and that was a signal improvement over the Ashmore/Trotman design for Esterbrook, in which the plug was a part of the inkwell and fitted loosely into the bottle’s neck. The design shown above was sold as the Morriset Model A; with slight revisions, it became the Model B (shown at the top of this page). Among the long list of Morriset customers was the United States Senate.
By the middle of the 1950s, Esterbrook had abandoned the idea of using an inverted ink bottle as a reservoir. Instead, the new generation of Esterbrook inkwells, the Model 444 (U.S. Patent No D157,267, shown below), had a large flat well with a correspondingly large cover, as shown by this drawing from U.S. Patent No 2,758,568:
In the center of the cover was a socket for the pen; at the bottom of the socket, contained by a detachable cover, was a small piece of sponge that had been prepared by crushing it to break its cell walls. This preparation allowed ink to pass through the broken walls so that the entire sponge would become saturated when placed in ink; by this mechanism the sponge conveyed ink to the nib and feed. A metal ring stamped DO NOT FILL ABOVE THIS LEVEL (callout 36) showed the user how far the well could be filled. This design greatly reduced the earlier Esterbrook inkwells’ risk of mess during refilling because the user could simply pour from a bottle without having to invert it completely and then insert it into the well.
Gustav Sengbusch, who had missed the boat on his first attempt, was not slow to catch up. Born in 1875, he was still actively patenting new products in his mid-60s, and he appeared in the early 1940s with a succession of inkstands. For simplicity, his U.S. Patent No 2,276,350, issued on March 17, 1942, would be hard to beat.
This inkstand, which was branded with the Handi-Pen logo, was designed to be as simple, and as economical, as the Handi-Pen itself. Gone was the bottle, and gone was the plug. To fill this inkstand, the user simply removed the pen socket, tilted the inkstand so that the opening for the socket was at the top, and poured ink — preferably from a quart bottle with a pouring spout, such as Sheaffer Skrip bottles had. A vertical slot between the reservoir and the pen socket metered the flow of air and ink. This inkstand was made primarily of molded plastic, and it appeared in attractive colors that complemented its computer-mouse shape.
The Sengbusch inkstand that was perhaps most in keeping with the designs discussed earlier was the one described in U.S. Patent No 2,276,352. This design also lacked the plug, but it did use a bottle; in fact, it was designed so that it would accept bottles in a variety of shapes, from a variety of manufacturers.
The winner in the Sengbusch portfolio, however, was the inkstand described in U.S. Patent No 2,369,496. Its design, illustrated below, eliminated both the plug and the bottle while also avoiding the potentially disastrous need to tip the inkstand up to fill it:
This inkstand was designed in 1942, shortly after America entered World War II, and the patent for it was issued in 1945. The key to its operation was a vertical slot (callout 21) in the side of the small dome (callout 20) depending from the “bottle cap.” The slot extended to the peak at the bottom of the dome, and although ink would normally not leak out, there was a small boss (callout 24) rising from the floor of the well; the weight of the ink was sufficient to make it bulge downward far enough to touch the boss, and that contact would overcome surface tension and cause the ink to flow. The inkstand’s virtues, in addition to its relative simplicity, were embodied in the “bottle” formed by the dome-shaped cover (callout 9) and its threaded cover (callout 19), and in the materials of which it was made. Importantly, given when it was designed, the inkstand used no materials that were on the United States government’s list of critical war resources. The base was made of glass in black or custard (off white), with a matching or clear bottle/dome, a ceramic socket, a ceramic bottle cap, and a fibrous cover to seal the edges of the slot that allowed air into the reservoir. (The patent does say, however, that the bottle cap can be made of rubber “if available.”) And despite the exigencies of wartime, it still managed to look remarkably attractive:
In the latter years of the 1940s, ballpoint pens were on the rise, and by the end of another decade the need for dip-type and dip-less pens had begun to fade away, taking with it some very clever (and collectible) relics of inventive genius. This article touches on only a few of the myriad designs; there are many more out there, just waiting to be discovered and researched. And, in the end, Bert Morris might have been right. They might really be fountain pens.
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.