Filling System Histories: The Bulb

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PEN WORLD MagazineThis article is a slightly revised version of one that originally appeared in the February and April 2013 issues of PEN WORLD magazine.

Where did the idea come from? Maybe it was the bulb on the eyedropper that most people used to fill their pens.

Eyedropper

Or maybe not. In any case, in June 1902, George W. Perks and Frederick C. Thacker applied for a British patent on their design for a fountain pen filling system. In December of the same year, they applied for a U.S. patent. Both patents were granted (British Patent No. 1902.13,133, and U.S. Patent No. 723,726). The design employed a sliding tube with a bulb at its back end, as shown in the patent drawing. To fill the pen, the user slid the tube forward until it was in contact with a plug located behind the nib and feed, and then squeezed the bulb repeatedly to pump ink into the pen. The system appears iffy at best, and so far as is known, no manufacturer produced pens using it.

Patent drawing

Theme

Perks and Thacker received their U.S. patent in 1903; a year later, Huston Taylor filed for a much-improved design (U.S. Patent No. 802,668, issued in 1905). Taylor’s system featured a breather tube attached to the feed and extending the length of the barrel, with a bulb at the back end. To cover the concept rather than the implementation, Taylor also included a version that used a plunger similar to the one in Woodruff Post’s pull filler; but in Taylor’s implementation, the plunger moved only a very short distance at the back end of the barrel and required multiple strokes. Taylor assigned his patent rights to Aikin-Lambert & Company. Aikin-Lambert made pens to this patent and sold three models at prices ranging from $3.00 to $4.50.

Patent drawing

Variation I

Move forward two decades, to 1925. In that year, G. N. Robinson, V. Buhr, E. Pape, and J. Gerdis founded the Postal Pen Company. Their product, which they claimed to be selling only by mail, was the Postal Reservoir Pen, a true bulb filler that was available in Senior, Junior, and ladies’ versions. Although the Postal pen was actually built to Huston Taylor’s design (for which the patent had expired), it bore a patent date of November 23, 1920. That patent refers to Charles Dunn’s design for a multi-stroke pump-filling pen, and it reflects the fact that Postal used Dunn’s method for securing the breather tube to the back end of the feed. It is not clear whether Postal paid royalties or a lump sum, or either, to the holders of the patent rights. (In fact, it is not even clear who held the patent rights, given that the Dunn-Pen Company, which had never employed Dunn himself, failed in 1924.)

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Postal’s implementation proved very reliable, and hundreds of thousands of the pens were sold for $2.50. (The Postal Deluxe version was priced slightly higher.) Postal offered its purchasers a bonus for becoming unofficial Postal salespeople: Pens were sold on a “send no money now” arrangement, and packed with each pen were five cards, each good for 50 cents off the price of a new pen. Purchasers would give the cards to their friends, who would in turn mail them in with orders for their own pens. If all five of a given purchaser’s cards were returned, that purchaser would pay nothing for his pen.

I said earlier that the company claimed to be selling its pens only by mail because that was not actually the case. The exact same pen designs appeared in the retail market under the Bonded and Transco names. (The Bonded pen here has a repair on its cap where some sort of emblem was probably glued and later removed.)

Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Was the Postal pen the swan song of bulb-fillers? Not at all. Long before the Edison and Gate City pen companies began building twenty-first-century bulb fillers, there were other bulb-filling pens on the market. It is true that these pens did not look like bulb fillers, but you can hide a lot under the skin, and several pen manufacturers did so.

In about 1932, Wahl-Eversharp began selling a small pen called the Bantam. Externally a Wahl-Eversharp design, internally the little Bantam was identical to the Postal of the previous decade. Offering a choice of steel or gold nibs, Bantams came with either round or faceted barrels, and there were myriad variations of color and number of cap bands (one, two, or three). There was even a desk-pen version complete with a diminutive desk base. During the 1933-1934 Century of Progress exhibition in Chicago, Illinois, single-band Bantams were available as souvenirs with A CENTURY OF PROGRESS imprinted on the cap band. Shown here are a twin-band Bantam with a steel nib and a gold-nibbed faceted Century of Progress model.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Variation II

Next to the market was the iconic Parker Vacumatic, patented in 1933 (U.S. Patent No. 1,904,358) by Arthur O. Dahlberg, who assigned the rights to the Parker Pen Company. At first glance, you might balk at the idea that there’s a bulb in a Vacumatic, but consider that the pump diaphragm, shown in this cross-sectional drawing, is really a bulb that extends into the barrel instead of going the other way. It’s operated by a plunger instead of being squeezed by the fingers, but it is still conceptually a bulb.

The Vacumatic filling system

The first version of the Vacumatic had a plunger that latched in the depressed position. This was not the best possible design; it required the user to leave the pen in the ink until the plunger was latched, and it was unnecessarily costly. The second version, shown here, was the same in all respects except that the plunger no longer latched in the depressed position. This change made for a longer blind cap, but it was easier to use and less costly to manufacture.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Variation Ia

Parker also made Postal-type bulb-fillers, but I do not know whether these Canadian-made pens were production models or prototypes. Called the Colonial and the Cambridge, they are typical in every way, even to their fully transparent barrels. The Colonial’s barrel is yellow, as illustrated here, and the otherwise similar Cambridge has a red barrel. A single specimen of each is owned by David Shepherd, author of several important books about Parker pens, who has kindly provided photos and information for this tour of bulb-fillers.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Parker Colonial photos © 2013 David Shepherd

Variation III

Still in the middle of the 1930s, we come to Waterman’s Ink-Vue (U.S. Patents Nos 2,068,419 and 2,087,672), a Rube Goldberg implementation if ever there was one — but one that worked, and worked well.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Introduced in 1934, the Ink-Vue used a special sac concealed within a blind cap that was not intended to be removable. To squeeze the sac, the user operates a lever that works essentially the same as in an ordinary lever-filler.

Patent drawing

Variation IIIa

The system for attaching the Ink-Vue’s sac (bulb) required no adhesive or sealant, but it was complex and costly. In 1939, Waterman updated the original Ink-Vue with a new design (U.S. Patent No. 2,217,755), in a pen model called the Blue Streak. The sac for the Blue Streak was another special one, again designed to require no adhesive or sealant for installation. It had a thickened flange at its open end, and it fitted into a groove on the inside wall of the pen barrel, to be held in place and sealed by a plug forced in from the nib end of the barrel.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Variation IV

Apparently loath to let go of the bulb bonanza, the Wahl-Eversharp company built another bulb-filler (U.S. Patent No. 1,990,441, issued in early 1935), in the form of a second-line pen called the Wahl-Oxford. Most Oxfords were ordinary lever-fillers, but one model used what appeared to be a twist-filling system like that in earlier pens by A. A. Waterman and Charles Ingersoll. The Wahl system, however, did not simply use a sac running the length of the barrel with a twist-knob at the back end. Instead, it had a partition about midway along the barrel, to which a bulb was affixed. The other end of the bulb was attached to the twist-knob. Thus, with a Taylor/Dunn-style breather tube in the front half of the barrel, the pen was a true bulb-filler whose bulb was wrung out rather than squeezed.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Variation V

The basic principle that Wahl used also looked good to the people at David Kahn, Inc., makers of Wearever and Pioneer pens, who created their own version of it (U.S. Patent No. 1,966,369, issued in 1934) and built prototypes like the one seen here, but did not progress to the point of making their design into a production model.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

The Wahl and Kahn designs both had stops built into their mechanisms to keep the knob from turning more than the proper amount; this was a real improvement over the earlier systems, which lacked such protection and could be damaged by a too-enthusiastic user’s overtwisting. Kahn’s version went one step further: it had no need of a blind cap because when at rest, its knob was locked by a pin so that it could not be turned inadvertently, ejecting ink from the pen. Pulling the spring-loaded knob away from the barrel end released the lock so that the knob could twist. Once started, it could be allowed to return to its position against the end of the barrel to complete the twisting operation, and it would automatically re-lock itself when twisted back to the rest position. I assume that, had the pen ever been produced, a practiced user would have learned not to twist the knob quite all the way back until the pen was filled completely after several twists.

Variation VI

A third twist-bulb pen, for which I cannot find a patent, showed up at about the same time. Born in the factory of the Conklin Pen Company and named the All-American, it had its twist knob concealed beneath a blind cap; but unlike the Oxford, it had no mechanism to protect against overtwisting. As was common with many pens of its time, including the Wahl-Oxford and Bantam, it featured a barrel with areas of transparency so that the user could keep track of the remaining ink supply.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Variation VII

Yet another variation on the bulb-filler theme comes from prewar Germany. Soennecken, known for its piston-filling pens, produced a line of bulb-fillers under the Rheingold brand. These pens, like those of Parker et al., did not look like bulb-fillers. They looked, and operated, like button-fillers, in which pressing a very short-stroke button at the back end of the barrel compresses a pressure bar lengthwise, forcing it to flex away from the barrel wall and squeeze the sac. The button in Parker’s design (U.S. Patent No. 787,152, taken out in 1905 by John T. Davison), was concealed beneath a blind cap; but Soennecken, apparently concerned lest the blind cap become lost, came up with a better system. A collar surrounding the button could be screwed upward to shield the button from inadvertent pressure or downward to expose it. The Soennecken design included a partition halfway long the barrel and a breather tube, much like the Wahl and Kahn designs, such that the sac was actually nothing more than a concealed bulb.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass
Fountain pen Magnifying glass

Variations VIII, IIa, and Ia

At the end of a long line of bulb-fillers, we return to Janesville, Wisconsin. In 1944, the Parker Pen Company built prototypes of three bulb-filling “51” designs, illustrated here in photos provided by David Shepherd. One of these designs has a sac in its barrel, with a portion of the sac extending through a narrowed opening in the back end of the barrel to form the “bulb.” This pen, which is marked SAC POSTAL FILLER on its barrel, has a mid-body connector with a threaded barrel secured in place, similar to the design that appeared with the 1948 introduction of the Aero-metric “51”, but with a blind cap.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass

The second filler, still very simple but somewhat more interesting mechanically, appears to be a design that Parker had originally tested but not produced in the mid-1930s: a cost-reduced variation of the Vacumatic filler, with a springless plunger operating the bulb.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass

The third pen, with the initials KP (for Kenneth Parker) on its cap, has a true Postal-type filler, but with an improvement. One problem with the original Postal filler was that the user could pull the bulb off the barrel while squeezing it. Wahl-Eversharp solved this problem on the Bantam by swaging a metal band around the base of the bulb to clamp it in place. Parker’s 1944 approach, foreshadowing the arrival of the Aerometric filler, was to attach a metal guard over the bulb so that it could not be pulled away from the barrel as it was squeezed. This pen, which sadly never became a production model, was the pinnacle of bulb-filler design, so far from — and yet so near to — Huston Taylor’s 1905 invention.

Fountain pen Magnifying glass

And there you have it, a tour of the filling system that wouldn’t die.

Notes:
  1. I am indebted for this information to Victor Sztainbok, who sent to me a photograph of an Aikin-Lambert advertisement for their new self-filling pens.


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