(This page revised October 24, 2022)
This article is a revised and expanded version of a pair of articles that appeared in the June and August 2013 issues of Pen World Magazine.
It’s almost an article of faith for many pen collectors that Walter A. Sheaffer revolutionized fountain pen design by inventing the lever-filler in 1908 — but if you’re among the Sheaffer faithful, prepare yourself for a shock.
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It’s true that in 1908 Sheaffer did receive U.S. Patent No 896,861 for his lever-filler, but his design was as clumsy as Conklin’s 1897 Crescent-Filler (although less clunky looking). And it didn’t really change anything. Take a look at Sheaffer’s 1908 patent drawing.
A locking ring (callout 8 in Sheaffer’s drawings) encircled the barrel at the long end of Sheaffer’s lever, riding in a groove to keep it in place. In the ring was a notch (callout 11). Rotating the ring clockwise so that its notch was not aligned with the lever locked the lever in its closed position. The end of the lever was also notched (callout 9) so that its end lay under the ring. When the ring was rotated counterclockwise so that the notch was aligned with the lever, the lever could be raised. Almost. Because the lever lay flush with the barrel, there was no finger hold. Sheaffer’s solution for this problem was to fashion a ramp (callout 12) on one side of the notch so that rotating the ring a little farther picked up the lever’s end and raised it above the barrel’s surface to be grasped. Adding to the problem of operability is that the locking ring is depicted as being smooth, with no studs, bumps, grooves, or other mechanism provided for grasping it to rotate it. This design would not be easy to operate.
But that’s not all. The pressure bar in Sheaffer’s design has no spring to push on the lever so that it will lie flat or to keep the pressure bar aligned in the barrel. It is secured in place by two pins (callout 17) passing transversely through the barrel and also through a pair of holes (callout 16) in the back end of the pressure bar. Using two pins would theoretically keep the pressure bar aligned between the sac and the lever, but in actual practice the holes in the bar need to be large enough that the pressure bar can swing sidewise, potentially slipping out of position. There will be more on this point later in this article.
In sum, Sheaffer’s design was not exactly earthshaking, especially considering that he didn’t actually invent the lever-filler in the first place. But if Sheaffer didn’t invent the lever-filler, who did?
Let’s start at the beginning. John Oliphant patented the first workable lever-filling pen in 1891 (U.S. Patent No 448,360).
Oliphant’s lever (part E in his drawings) was very wide, pivoted at one end like a trap door. To fill the pen, the user pressed the lever into the pen’s barrel with a finger, pushing the lever’s free end into the sac to compress it. The system worked, but it couldn’t have worked very well. Because there was no pressure bar, the sac was not compressed very much; ink capacity was severely limited. Furthermore, there was considerable risk of accidentally squeezing the barrel during casual handling or while the pen was in use, an action that would eject ink. Worst of all, the design did not include a separate gripping section. In order to install the sac, Oliphant designed the holder with a portion of the gripping area removed. After the sac was installed, an extra part (B in the drawings) plugged the gap like a filling in a tooth. This was a leak waiting to happen. Despite Oliphant’s having been first across the line, I think we can discount his design.
The honor of having invented the lever-filler, therefore, goes to John Barnes, whose design, secured by U.S. Patent No 726,495, became public in 1903.
Barnes was part owner of the W. F. & John Barnes Company, of Rockford, Illinois. The company was a machine-tool manufacturer and had no use for Barnes’ elegant pen design, and at some point it shopped the patent to companies in the business of making fountain pens. Reportedly believing that his own lever-filler patents were sufficiently secure, Walter Sheaffer declined to purchase the rights. The next potential buyer might have been the L. E. Waterman Company, although there could well have been others before Barnes knocked on Waterman’s door. In any case, Waterman did the deal, as indicated by the squib shown to the right, from page 745 of the March 21, 1916, issue of the Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office. Waterman never produced pens to Barnes’ design, but the company did use elements of the design in its own pens as described later in this article.
Several other manufacturers also adapted features of Barnes’ design. If you’ve ever had a 1920s Wahl pen apart, for example, you will recognize the system. The lever (shown in Figure 5 of Barnes’ drawings) had tabs sticking out sideways at the small end, and it used a pressure bar with its sides formed into channels (Figure 4). Barnes’ pressure bar was secured loosely in the pen by a wire loop held by a pin through the back end of the barrel, and the lever’s tabs rode in the bar’s channels, keeping the pressure bar in alignment. Wahl used the channeled pressure bar but developed a different method for retaiining the bar in the pen’s barrel. Barnes’ design was a simple and effective solution, patented in 1903, to the alignment problem that existed in Sheaffer’s 1908 design.
Barnes’ lever was not without its faults, however. When closed, it protruded a little from the barrel so that it could be grasped and lifted to operate. To minimize the risk of catching on the user’s pocket when the pen was put away, the lever’s end curved downward toward the barrel and fitted into a small notch in the barrel’s surface — but this only minimized the risk, it didn’t eliminate it.
Let’s return to Walter Sheaffer for a moment. He went back to the drawing board, and in 1914 he received U.S. Patent No 1,114,052 for a new lever shape that featured a split short end (callouts 13 and 13a in the drawing here) so that the lever could be adjusted to compensate for manufacturing irregularities. This lever also had its short end bent downward slightly (callout 11) 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 ooze out of the pen). The photo of the Sheaffer Lifetime pen lever below the patent drawing shows how the downward-bending lever looks in real life.
Even then, Sheaffer 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 two-piece sprung pressure bar, and that was the final key to the success of Sheaffer’s lever-filler and, by extension, his company.
But Sheaffer’s third version, as good as it was, still wasn’t the first truly successful lever in the market. As shown by an advertisement from the November 1911 issue of Popular Mechanics Magazine, the Whitney-Richards Company was out there well before Sheaffer began selling pens at all, advertising and selling a true lever-filler with a flat-lying lever like Sheaffer’s, under U.S. Patent No 1,005,387. This well thought-out design, by Ruel W. Whitney, didn’t reach the Patent Office before Sheaffer’s clumsy first attempt did, but it definitely beat Sheaffer’s second and third versions.
Whitney’s design featured a lever (callout 22 in his drawing) whose end curved downward (callout 220) against the barrel to prevent its being caught on the pocket, along with a depression in the barrel wall so that the user could slip a fingernail under the end of the lever to lift it. This depression became standard on lever-fillers from virtually all makers — including Sheaffer — whether their levers had downward-curving ends or not. Whitney’s pressure bar was fitted with a weak leaf spring (callout 6) to keep the lever flat in its slot when closed, and the system relied on the elasticity of the sac to hold the pressure bar against the barrel wall and keep the lever closed.
Whitney also included a clever device for securing the pressure bar into the barrel, in the form of a bail (callout 9) whose outer ends snapped into a groove cut on the interior surface of the barrel near its back end. The bail passed through a “tube” formed from the end of the pressure bar, thereby providing alignment and the ability for the bail’s middle portion to move from the top to the bottom of the barrel as the pressure bar pressed on and released the sac. This pivoting design ensured a more complete fill than any device that held the back end of the pressure bar in one position, such as the J shape of many pressure-bar designs of later years.
Whitney later designed a compound lever that worked as shown in the photos below. The longer portion of the lever is pivoted at its foreward end, and the shorter part, pivoted partway along the longer part, slides along the pressure bar, pressed against it by the end of the lever slot, as the longer lever is lifted. Whitney used the same pressure bar as in his earlier system, but without the spring. To keep the lever lying flat, the lever was wedged against the sides of the slot just enough to hold it in place when it was closed. The result was a smooth operation that conveyed a sense of solidity and high quality. This system’s advantage over other levers was that it applied more force on the pressure bar, squeezing the sac more effectively without overstressing the lever’s parts or its pivot pin. It was a principal feature of Whitney-Richards pens for a time; but although Whitney applied for a patent on the design, none was issued for it.
Since Whitney was there first with a truly practical design, why does Sheaffer get all the credit? It’s probably a case of what Winston Churchill meant when he said, “History is written by the victors.” Sheaffer was in the right place at the right time. He apparently had better funding, and he also defended his patents very aggressively. (When former associate George M. Kraker began selling pens using Sheaffer’s lever design, for example, Sheaffer sued him. The judgment in that case awarded all of the Kraker Pen Company’s assets to Sheaffer!) The rest, as they say, is history, and that’s why pen collectors today see Sheaffer and Waterman lever-fillers by the score in pen-show dealer trays.
Sheaffer was careless in one aspect of his patent: he did not specify methods for pivoting the lever, but in the drawings of his third version he showed the pivot as a pin mounted in a hole drilled laterally through the barrel and the lever. This drawing left others free to “riff” on the pivot design.
Waterman fitted a Barnes lever into a frame (called the lever box) with the pivot pin integral to the assembly, which could then be installed whole into the barrel. Thus, the pin did not pass through a hole in the barrel. Sheaffer could not argue against other aspects of Waterman’s design because of Barnes’ prior art. Waterman’s unsprung pressure bar, also made to Barnes’ essential design, was secured in the pen by a tab on the bar’s floor that engaged the end of the lever to keep the bar from falling out.
Wahl also produced a springless pressure bar with side channels, securing it in the barrel in essentially the manner described by Barnes. It’s shown disassembled here. Both Waterman and Wahl held the lever closed by adding small bumps on the sides of the lever at its long end. Waterman’s bumps, positioned on the inside surfaces of the lever box, mated with dimples in the sides of the lever itself for a very positive closure, while Wahl’s bumps were actually the ends of a tiny U-shaped spring that snapped into slots in the sides of the lever and protruded far enough to engage the slot walls.
One of the weaknesses of Sheaffer’s system — and those of other manufacturers who used variations of it sufficient to get around Sheaffer’s patent — was the pin holding the lever into the barrel. The barrel was very weak where the hole for the pin was drilled through it (shown in the photo of the Sheaffer pen lever earlier in this article). Too much force applied to a pen whose sac had begun to harden could break the barrel material over the pin, rendering the lever useless. The solution to this problem arrived in the form of a spring-steel ring that replaced the pin. The ring fitted into a groove machined around the inside of the barrel. Not only did this design, patented in 1919 by August G. Elser for C. E. Barrett & Company (U.S. Patent No 1,292,736), solve the breakage problem, but it also produced a better appearance. Ironically, Walter Sheaffer, who had fought tooth and nail to protect his lever patents, could not use the ring design until about 1931, thanks to Elser’s patent. Sheaffer has gotten the last laugh though. C. E. Barrett went out of business more than half a century ago.
Besides the myriad riffs on the lever-filler design that became associated with Walter Sheaffer, there were several lever-like designs that had the potential to make it in the big time, and in fact some of them did very well for their makers. Before departing from the usual lever, however, let’s look at some clever variations on it.
In 1918, George M. Kraker, who had already lost the entire assets of one company to Walter Sheaffer in the settlement of the latter’s patent infringement lawsuit against him, needed a filler design that wouldn’t get him in hot water again. Two related designs, (U.S. Patents Nos 1,263, 260 and 1,263, 261, both issued to Rudolph W. Lotz) provided what he needed. Both of these designs used ordinary levers; but Kraker had taken note of, and solved, the problem of catching the lever on the lip of a pocket and causing the pen to disgorge ink into its cap as it was being pocketed. The first of the Kraker patents used a lever that was sprung to rise slightly when released by the motion of a spring-loaded latch that was fastened to the barrel.
The second Kraker design also used a spring-loaded latch, but this latch was mounted in the end of an otherwise ordinary lever so that it engaged the end of the lever slot to hold the lever closed.
I’ve associated Kraker’s name with these two patents because the actual inventor’s identity is unclear. Rudolph Lotz, you see, was Kraker’s patent attorney; and Kraker, who was known to have engaged in deceptive business practices, may have used Lotz as a way to shield himself should further legal action arise. Regardless of who designed them, they both appeared in the retail market. The earlier design (U.S. Patent No 1,263, 260) went into pens bearing Kraker’s Pencraft brand, and the later one (U.S. Patent No 1,263, 261) appeared in Rexall drug stores under Rexall’s Monogram house brand.
In 1924, William P. De Witt invented a sprung lever system (U.S. Patent No 1,490,735) that not only prevented the lever from being pushed past 90° when it was opened, but also kept the lever flat against the barrel when closed. To keep the lever from flopping over, De Witt used a flanged pressure bar and a lever with tabs at the short end, exactly as in John Barnes’ 1903 system (also used by Waterman and Wahl). The key improvement was a spring, which De Witt attached to the lever itself, not to the pressure bar. The parts of the system are shown in De Witt’s patent drawings.
The long end of the J-shaped spring (Figure 3) has a hook that fits over bumps on the inside surfaces of the lever’s two sides. The “base” of the J fits through a hole in the pressure bar, neatly holding the bar in position, and the shorter arm of the J rides along the bottom wall of the barrel. When the lever is raised, the spring travels with it and becomes slightly bowed as its middle is held down by the barrel wall at the end of the lever slot. As the lever is lowered, the tension on the spring assists it, bringing it down to a flat position. The spring fits between the channels on the sides of the pressure bar, occupying no extra space inside the barrel.
De Witt’s design first appeared in the De Witt–La France Delaco pen, migrating via the sale of jobbed parts to become part of the Laughlin Manufacturing Company’s Red Gem. Its biggest role, however, was in pens sold by Carter’s Ink Company — which got its start in the pen business upon the demise of Laughlin, in 1926, by buying parts that De Witt–La France had sold to Laughlin. (Carter’s excellent spring-loaded clip also originated with the Delaco, but that’s a story for another time.)
One more lever deserves attention before we move on. In 1925, John J. Lynagh patented a lever-filler that looks almost exactly like Sheaffer’s third version, but with two interesting adaptations (U.S. Patent No 1,531,800). First, Lynagh, added two small tabs on the sides of the lever right at the pivot to prevent the lever from flopping over past 90° when it is opened. The second modification, however, is the one that concerns us here. Lynagh mounted his entire system, lever, pressure bar, and all, backwards in the barrel, so that the lever opened toward the back end of the barrel instead of toward the nib. Mounting the lever backwards was a cost-free and completely effective solution to the problem of catching the lever on a pocket when pocketing the pen. Interestingly, this lever configuration was illustrated, but not claimed, in John Barnes’ 1903 U.S. Patent No 738,876, which was not concerned with the design of the lever.
Mounting the presure bar at the front of the barrel instead of at the back caused the pressure bar to begin squeezing the sac at the back end of the barrel and progressing toward the front, driving out air that might otherwise be trapped behind the forward end of the pressure bar as it squeezed the sac closed ahead of that air. This part of the design yielded a more complete fill than could be achieved in many competing pens.
Pens with Lynagh’s design became the signature product of his employer, the Eisenstadt Manufacturing Company of St. Louis, Missouri.
Let us now look at a couple of fillers that look like levers but aren’t generally thought of as levers.
In 1915, John Holland patented a remarkably simple filler (U.S. Patent No 1,152,509) that used a pivoting lever shaped like the letter P — or, if you’re a sportsperson, a hatchet. The hatchet pivots at the end opposite the blade, and when the filler is not in use, the blade is hidden within the barrel. (The patent drawing for this design shows a machined peg rather than the less costly blade that Holland put into production.)
Friction with the snug-fitting metal housing (a lever box, of sorts) in which the hatchet is mounted holds the filler closed. Swinging the hatchet through a 180° arc brings the hatchet into a position in which its “handle” is against the pressure bar in the barrel, with the blade exposed as a button. The blade is of course not sharp, and pressing on it pushes the hatchet against the pressure bar. Because its slot has to be nearly twice the length of the hatchet and because the blade takes up space in the barrel when the filler is closed, this design is less pleasing than an ordinary lever filler; but it nevertheless had much to offer in terms of economy and reliability. Unfortunately, the John Holland Gold Pen Company, as a regional player, did not have enough clout to market it successfully, and it fell by the wayside as Barnes- and Sheaffer-type levers became increasingly popular.
For the last stop on our journey, we visit New England, where in 1917 Stormont Josselyn received U.S. Patent No 1,214,310, the first of two patents relating to another design for solving the problem of catching the lever on a pocket. (The second related patent, U.S. Patent No 1,390,366, was issued to Roderick J. Mackenzie in 1921.)
Although commonly called a hatchet filler today, Josselyn’s design is really an ordinary lever filler whose lever is long enough to extend past the end of the barrel. The lever slot also goes to the end of the barrel. The end of the lever is threaded to accept a knob that screws down to engage the end of the barrel and keep the lever from moving at all. The principal difference in Mackenzie’s design is a tab-and-slot arrangement for aligning the barrel and gripping section when the pen is assembled. This improvement ensures that the lever will be in the desired relationship with the pen’s nib.
Josselyn and Mackenzie assigned half of the rights in their patents to Seth Chilton Crocker and Seth Sears Crocker, respectively. (Seth C. was the son of Seth S. Both were involved with pens, Seth C. working for a time in his father’s Crocker Pen Company and later starting his own S. C. Crocker and Chilton companies.) The design appeared, with the Josselyn patent date, on Ink-Tite branded pens produced in Boston by the elder Crocker’s company.
The article The Bulb describes the Waterman Ink-Vue, which has a lever but is actually a bulb-filling pen; and there were also other lever-like pens. It seems as though humankind’s ability to riff on a single good idea is endless.
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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.