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Design Features: Stylographic Pens

(This page revised September 20, 2019)

Reference Info Index | Glossopedia  ]

If a fountain pen has to have a nib, stylographic pens aren’t fountain pens. But there were reliable stylos on the market almost a decade before Lewis Edson Waterman patented his channeled feed. Duncan MacKinnon, a Canadian druggist, invented the first relatively successful stylographic pen, calling it an “ink pencil,” and patented his design in Canada and Great Britain in 1875. He also applied for and received U.S. Patent No 174,965, issued in 1876. MacKinnon laid the groundwork for his company’s demise very early on, however, when he showed his pen to Alonzo Townsend Cross and even left a sample with Cross. Cross immediately saw a way to improve the design by adding a spring to the needle. He did so, introducing his pen in 1875 and receiving his first patent two years later. Angry at being so handily beaten out, MacKinnon added the spring to his design, filed for a reissue of his patent, which was awarded in 1879 (U.S. Patent No 217,888), and contracted with John Holland to produce his pens. There was a problem in the production of the iridosmine tip, however; after attempting to drill through a chunk of iridosmine that had been soldered to the tip tube (and breaking far too many drill bits), MacKinnon came up with the idea of welding tiny bits of iridosmine in a circle around the tip of the pen’s tube. This method worked but was still not satisfactory; Holland soon developed and patented a method of drilling the iridosmine chunk and then soldering it to the tube (U.S. Patent No 258,299), thereby solving the problem entirely.

Alonzo Cross, who founded the A. T. Cross company in 1881, began selling stylos in 1875; and in 1877 he received a patent for the first truly successful stylographic pen (U.S. Patent No 189,304). He received several more patents in short order (U.S. Patents Nos 190,130 and 191,798 in 1877; 199,621 in 1878; 225,691, 227,416, and 232,804 in 1880). MacKinnon and Cross competed vigorously until MacKinnon’s death on March 18, 1882, at the age of 43.

Thus, based on the date of Cross’ first patent, stylographic pens had seven years to establish a market before Waterman patented the channeled feed that made possible a reliable nib-type fountain pen. It turned out that the nib-type pen is a much better general-purpose writing instrument than the stylo, and it rapidly wrested control of the market from the older technology.

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How It Works

What, then, is a stylographic pen? Shown here is a 19th-century A. T. Cross stylographic pen. This pen embodies the essential features described in Cross’ U.S. Patent No 225,691, dated March 23, 1880. This pen’s appearance makes obvious the alternate name for these pens: ink pencils.

Fountain pen

Here is a schematic drawing of the system as implemented in the pen shown above, with the parts colored for easy identification:

Technical illustration
Stylographic pen schematic

This pen is an eyedropper filler, as were its contemporaries. The blue part is the nozzle (nose cone), with a thin metal tube (orange) embedded at the very end. Inside the tube rides a wire (silver). The wire is actually one end of a spring whose other end is wound with its turns tightly together to serve as a socket for a peg at the end of a rod extending forward from the back end of the barrel (yellow).

When the pen is off the paper, the spring pushes the wire forward as shown in this illustration. Because the wire fits closely inside the tube, the pen doesn’t drip. When you apply the tip to the paper, the wire rides upward in the tip, against the spring. At this point, capillary action can draw ink out onto the paper. Although the wire is a close fit inside the tube, it is not so tight that air cannot enter to replace the ink that is used. Tiny air bubbles rise periodically through the tube, encouraged by the motion of the wire every time the pen is lifted from the paper.

Yes, but…

A pen of this type has a weakness, in that its wire is very delicate. During the filling process, the user can easily bend the wire enough to catch it on the side of the nozzle and kink it as the nozzle is screwed into the barrel, rendering the pen unserviceable. The solution to this problem was to redesign the pen’s interior so that the wire was not exposed during filling. William W. Sanford came up with a good solution in his 1902 U.S. Patent No 698,859. Sanford attached the wire to a sliding weight that he encapsulated within the gripping section to protect the wire. Weighted pens had been developed as early as the 1880s, but those early versions were not particularly reliable. Shown here is a Sanford & Bennett Gravity Stylo from about 1910. This pen embodies the essential features of Sanford’s patent, and it is in principle identical to stylos still being made today:

Fountain pen

Here is a drawing of the Gravity pen’s interior, with the parts colored for easy identification:

Technical illustration
Stylographic pen schematic

The nozzle and tube are like those in the older pen. The wire, instead of being part of a spring, is attached to the weight (green). The red part is a cap that prevents the weight from falling out of the tip and getting lost in the barrel or, in a self-filling pen, the sac. The slightly darker area at the lower right corner of this cap is a slot that is cut out of the cap’s side to allow ink to enter the tip from the barrel.

This system works like the Cross version except that the weight, instead of a spring, extends the wire. But with the weighted wire there is an advantage, in that it is possible to shake the pen up and down, or even invert it a few times, to free up a slightly stuck wire or to allow some air into the pen. This is the system that all stylographic pens have used from about 1920 to the present.

One very useful feature of stylos is that their tips don’t bend under pressure as fountain-pen nib tips do, so that a stylo’s tip can press through multiple sheets to make five or more carbon copies without risk of damage as the nib is pressed more firmly into the paper. For this reason, stylos are better for manifolding work than all but the most nail-like nibs.

Like nib-type fountain pens, stylographic pens benefited from new technology. Soon after the appearance of the lever filler on fountain pens, stylo makers adopted the feature, too, and most general-purpose stylos made in the U.S.A. after about 1920 are lever-filling models. Because the stylo market wasn’t large enough to encourage very great investment in new technology, more exotic fillers — even button models — seem to have been ignored. (European makers seem to have preferred piston fillers once that system hit the market.) Better materials appeared, however, including in a few cases steel tip tubes tipped with semiprecious stones.

Whither the Stylo?

Inkograph magazine advertisement, 1947In the 19th century, Cross, MacKinnon, and McKenzie were the predominant makers of stylographic pens. In the 20th century, the top position was the property of Inkograph. The following illustrations show three Inkograph stylos: a mottled hard rubber model of the 1920s, a celluloid pen from the latter half of the 1930s, and a pen made in about 1950 of an injection-molded cellulosic resin similar to Sheaffer’s Radite II:

Fountain pen
Fountain pen
Fountain pen

In the latter half of the 20th century, stylographic pens fell entirely out of favor as general-purpose writing instruments, but they had established a niche in which they reigned supreme until the advent of high-speed computers. Known as “technical pens,” they became the principal tool for ink-line drafting and technical illustration. The same stiff tip that makes them better for manifolding than most fountain pens is also ideal for these sorts of mechanical drawing, in which a pen whose line width is unvarying is critical. Held vertically above the paper, a technical pen produces lines of identical widths in all directions. Shown here is a Keuffel & Esser “Leroy” technical pen from about 1970:

Fountain pen

Stylographic pens, like fountain pens, can be fitted with points of different sizes. Technical pens are typically sold in sets of several capped pens, each with a tip of a different size, sharing a single barrel. These pens are eyedropper fillers, with a removable translucent plastic reservoir (called a cartridge) that is held in place by a threaded ring as shown here:

Technical pen parts

For technical drawing use, stylographic pens are produced in an incredible array of point sizes. The following table lists the sizes available (as of this writing) for the standard Rapidograph SS technical pen:

Rapidograph Point Sizes
Point Size Stroke Width

6x0 0.13 mm
4x0 0.18 mm
3x0 0.25 mm
00 0.30 mm
0 0.35 mm
1 0.50 mm
2.5 0.70 mm
3 0.80 mm
4 1.20 mm
7 2.00 mm

The golf-cart transmission illustrated here, with its lines of different widths, was drawn with the Leroy pen shown above:

Technical illustration

The Last Word

It is interesting to note that Cross’ patent describes “an Improvement in Fountain-Pens.” So perhaps a stylo is a fountain pen after all. “Real” fountain pens or not, stylographic pens are a fascinating and surprisingly underappreciated chapter in the story of 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.

This article is also available as a chapter in The RichardsPens Guide to Fountain Pens, Volume 4, an ebook for your computer or mobile device.

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