(This page revised July 7, 2015)
This article is a revised and expanded version of one that first appeared in the December 2013 issue of PEN WORLD Magazine.
In the race to produce the best self-filler design, A. A. Waterman & Company came in near the head of the pack with what may be thought of as the “cleanest” filler. The concept didn’t originate with Waterman, however; it made its appearance two decades before Waterman got hold of it.
Noticing that you can wring out your clothes, William Vale, a pen and pencil maker in Birmingham, England, deduced that you should be able to wring out your pen — or at least its ink reservoir. Vale filed for a patent on his twist-filling design, and on Christmas Day, 1883, he received a lovely gift: U.S. Patent No 290,820. His patent description mentions the corresponding British patent, No. 4,401, dated September 18, 1883.
As shown above, Vale’s design was essentially as simple as things can get: secure a tubular sac at each end, with the front end feeding directly to the nib unit and the back end attached to a knob at the back end of the pen body. When the user rotates the knob clockwise, the knob in turn twists its end of the sac, wringing the sac out along its length and forcing ink to flow to the nib via a tube that ends in contact with the underside of the nib. This is not, of course, a true fountain pen as we think of it today.
In the early 1880s, reliable feeds had not yet been invented, and Vale described his invention as using the twisting action to provide a periodic supply of ink to the nib for writing; thus, his pen was really a dip pen that carried its own supply of ink. Reversing the direction of rotation untwists the sac, allowing it to expand and pull excess ink from the feed tube or to fill itself when the nib end of the pen is immersed in a supply of ink. This bidirectional operating action was still being used as late as the 1920s in cheap piston-filling pens made in Austria and sold, primarily through advertisements in the backs of magazines such as Popular Mechanics, for prices ranging from 25¢ to $1.00 apiece. They appeared under such names as Manos (probably the most common), Victoria, and Yankee. Shown here is a Victoria pen from about 1920.
As Vale’s patent drawing shows, the knob is threaded so that it screws up and down as it moves, and there are “abutments” that stop it when it reaches either end of its travel.
Stepping ahead twenty years from Vale's patent, we find that feed technology had improved considerably — but the basic concept had not — when Harry W. Stone received U.S. Patent No 744,642 for his improved version of the design.
Stone sold his version, actually the second — and better — of two related twist-filler patents, to Arthur A. Waterman (whose company was unrelated to L. E. Waterman), William G. Frazer and Hobart W. Geyer. It uses a small knob attached to a “thimble” screwed through a hole in the back end of the pen barrel. The thimble carries the back end of the tubular sac, and it is left-hand threaded so that turning it clockwise makes it rise away from the end of the barrel as it twists the sac. This action puts lengthwise tension on the sac, and releasing the knob takes advantage of the sac’s elasticity to screw the knob back down almost automatically as the sac expands and fills. A quick twist at the end of the operation drives the knob firmly enough against the end of the barrel so that it will not float free. Shown below are two A. A. Waterman twist-fillers, an early cone-cap model and a safety screw-cap model from about 1913.
In 1921, the Robert H. Ingersoll Watch Company failed after nearly thirty years of selling “dollar watches.” Three years later, with his own appropriately named Charles H. Ingersoll Dollar Pen Company, Robert’s brother and partner, Charles, remixed the concept to make fountain pens that sold for a dollar. His first products were metal-bodied twist-filling pens whose best feature was a high quality 14 karat gold nib.
Regardless of the cap, clip, or section design, these pens all used a remarkably cheap adaptation of the sac-wringing twist filler, in which the distal end of the tubular sac was secured to a simple cylindrical hard rubber plug. (The proximal end was secured to the section in the usual way.) The plug had a hole drilled partway through it, and a knob for turning that had started out life as a decorative upholstery tack was forced into the plug through a corresponding hole in the end of the barrel, as shown to the right. Ingersoll used whatever tacks it could get at any given moment; I have seen at least four different knob designs. To provide a smoother action, Ingersoll added a small washer shaped like a broad, slightly flattened bell as shown in the sketch below.
In about 1927, while continuing to produce metal pens, Ingersoll had a brief fling with celluloid, producing some attractive designs, but the company found that the celluloid tubing was not adequately sturdy when it was as thin as needed to make the dollar price point while still using a gold nib. The next generation was made of Bakelite in several colors, reinforced with a filler material that rendered it opaque as well as strong enough to do the job. It also had an improvement, in the form of — surprise! — a threaded knob that worked like A. A. Waterman’s. There were also models for $1.50 and $2.00 that included gold-plated trim and screw-off blind caps to conceal an upholstery-tack knob, improving the pen’s overall appearance. Shown here are a celluloid dollar pen, a Bakelite dollar pen, and a $2.00 “oversize” Bakelite model.
Probably the last gasp for wringer-type fillers came from Fort Madison, Iowa. In the mid-1930s, Sheaffer produced a twister under its VACUUM-FIL sub-brand. This pen, as shown by the photo below, was very attractive; but it cannot have been very popular with Sheaffer’s assembly workers, as there was no convenient way to install the sac. Assembly required the worker to shellac the sac to the section, then install the section into the pen, and then — after the shellac was thoroughly dry — pull the other end of the sac far enough out of the end of the barrel that the knob could be shellacked to it, and hold it there somehow until the shellac dried. Finally, because the knob screws into the end of the barrel, the worker had to turn the section little by little while screwing the knob down into place.
The basic concept of twisting the sac could have ended there, but it didn’t. Conklin, Wahl, and David Kahn all designed bulb fillers that used a twisting action (illustrated below). Conklin’s and Wahl’s made it into production, while Kahn’s appears to have died in the prototype stage. But who knows, maybe there’s some pen designer out there right now, creating the next great twist-filler.
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This article is also available as a chapter in The RichardsPens Guide to Fountain Pens, Volume 3, an ebook for your computer or mobile device.