(This page revised June 25, 2022)
This article is the original full-length version of an abridged article that appeared in the August 2021 issue of PEN WORLD Magazine.
He was largely forgotten by history, but Dr. Adolf Friedrich Hommel played a significant role in the creation of the modern piston-filling fountain pen.
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On January 29, 1889, Adolf Hommel, M.D., of Zurich, Switzerland, received Swiss Patent No 188, of which the drawings are shown here, to protect his design for a piston-filling reservoir pen. Figure I illustrates a ruling pen for drafting or drawing. Figure IV shows a pen fitted with a steel dip nib. The wasp-waisted constriction between the barrel and the elongated piston knob reflects the final production configuration:
Exactly seven weeks earlier, on December 11, 1888, he had received U.S. Patent No 394,183, covering the same design. Shown here is the single unnumbered figure in that patent; the ruling pen was not included:
Adolf Friedrich Hommel was born on April 6, 1851, in Chemnitz, Germany. After training for a commercial career, he worked in Russia for a few years. Resettling in Hottingen, Switzerland, he took up the study of medicine at the University of Zurich in 1880, graduating in 1884, earning his doctorate in 1886, and practicing for some years thereafter. In 1890 he founded Nicolay & Company to produce and distribute Haematogen, an iron-rich tonic he had developed to stimulate blood production. In 1892 he founded a branch of Nicolay in Hanau, and in 1908 he established Hommel’s Haematogen Corporation. With his substantial earnings, he bought villas in Zurich and on Lake Lucerne, amassing a remarkable art collection and a stake in Turicum, a Swiss automobile manufacturer. He sold his art collection in 1909 and moved to Wiesbaden, Germany, where he died at the age of 62 on December 12, 1913.
Hommel’s pen was not the first to use a piston. Piston-filling pens, in which a piston moves forward to eject air and backward to suck in ink, appear to date to the 1850s. The earliest patent I have found for a piston-filling fountain pen is U.S. Patent No 12,301, issued to Newell A. Prince on January 23, 1855. Today, however, we differentiate between a syringe-like “pull” filler like the Prince Protean, in which the writer pushes and pulls the piston shaft manually, and a mechanically operated piston filler like Hommel’s, which contains a screw mechanism to operate the piston when the writer turns a knob.
Because it did not provide a continuous flow of ink, however, Hommel’s pen was not a true fountain pen as we understand the term today. It featured a small tube projecting from the forward end of the reservoir and curved upward to touch the underside of the nib. To write, the user periodically turned the piston knob counterclockwise to force a drop of ink down through the tube and onto the nib. In essence, it was still a dip pen, improved in that it now carried a supply of ink within its barrel.
The manufacture of the pen was in train before Hommel received his patents. On June 30, 1888, the Schweizerisches Handelsamtsblatt (Swiss Official Gazette of Commerce) noted the following:
June 30th. Johann Koch of Hanau, in Enge, Dr. Adolf Hommel of Hottingen, in Unterstrass, Johann Conrad Kohl of Hanau, in Enge, and Joh. Heinrich Krahforst of Munich, in Zurich, have entered into a limited partnership under the company name of Johann Koch & Co., beginning on June 15, 1888, in Aussersihl. Unlimited partners are: Johann Koch and Adolf Hommel; Limited partners are: Johann Conrad Kuhl [sic] and Joh. Heinrich Krahforat, each in the amount of fifteen thousand francs. Fabrication of the Meteor pen (patent). Josephstrasse, Industrial Quarter.
Advertising soon appeared. This French-language ad first appeared in the June 1, 1889, issue of Nebelspalter (“Fog Splitter”), a Swiss magazine of humor and satire:
Because the nibs the Meteor Pen used were ordinary steel pens, one of the pen’s selling points was that it could use any nib. This was of course true only if one did not try to install the proprietary nib from some other fountain pen that had proven less than ideal, but the claim still made a powerful point. As with a dip pen, the user could replace the nib either when it was worn out or when a different point style was desired. A close look at the advertisement above suggests that given the ease of changing nibs, the intended method of filling the pen might have been to remove the nib before filling and replace it after the pen was filled. This method would keep the nib from carrying a large quantity of ink away from the bottle, most probably to throw a huge blot upon first being applied to the paper. Soaking away the excess ink would also prevent such a disaster, but removing and replacing the nib would be much less messy.
Being a doctor, not an engineer, Hommel did not specify the material of which his pen should be made. Koch & Co. chose metal for the barrel, and that proved an unfortunate decision, as they explained an 1889 ad. The new second model, they said, was made of Lithoid (a trade name for celluloid that implied the durability of stone). This made the pen lighter and easier to use, and it also eliminated the problem of ink that was ruined by contact with the metal during an extended period of disuse. The second model could also be unscrewed in the middle, making it much easier to flush the reservoir. I have never seen an example of a first- or second-model Meteor; shown here is a reconstruction of the second model, based on the advertisements included in this article:
Word of the Meteor got around, as can be seen from this item in the July-September 1889 edition of the Jahrbücher für die deutsche Armee und Marine (German Army and Navy Yearbooks), by Oberstleutnant (im Ruhestand) E. Schnackenburg.
An extremely practical invention for all writing, especially in the field and on maneuvers, especially for adjutants and sergeants, is the Meteor fountain pen invented by Joh. Koch & Co. of Zurich. It never fails when properly handled, and writes immediately after months of non-use. Any free-flowing ink (except iron-gall ink) can be used. Everyone will know what advantage it gives to be able to produce messages, orders, and the like outside the office in ink instead of a pencil. We can therefore hope that the Koch & Komp company’s invention will be widely used, because it does indeed deserve a certain demonstrable military interest. The Meteor fountain pen is available from the officers’ association at a price of 2 marks 40 pfennigs.
On June 6, 1889, Koch & Co. began a conversion, with an interim issue of one share at 500 Swiss francs, from a limited partnership into a stock corporation. Another interim issue of one share was made on September 1, and by October the tag line in the company’s advertising changed to Aktien-Gesellschaft für Kleinmechanik, vormals Joh. Koch & Cie (Stock Corporation for Small Mechanics, formerly Joh. Koch & Co.). The “formerly” phrasing was dropped in mid-December 1890.
A regular feature of the magazine Nebelspalter from mid-1877 until late 1906 was der Düsteler Schrier (the Gloomy Crier), who commented on all sorts of things. In the April 26, 1890, issue, he turned his attention to the Meteor pen.
I am the Gloomy Crier
and have heard with dismay
how to upset the counsel
of the council in Bellinzona.
Even ink pots should
prepare themselves for flying,
and in their flight should be minded
to watch out for heads.
One could easily help that,
just take away the inkpots!
The Meteor fountain pen
prevents such a wicked end.
For Christmas 1890, the company placed this half-page advertisement in a supplement inserted into the December 15, 1890, issue of the German humor and satire magazine Fliegende Blätter (”Loose Leaves”). The top line, Nützliches Weinachtsgeschenk, reads “Useful Christmas Gift,” and the boxed line, Kein Tintenfaß Mehr, proclaims “No More Inkwell”:
The march of progress has always dictated continual advancement and improvement. The Meteor pen was no exception to the rule. Shown below is a third-model Meteor, made entirely of celluloid. This pen was made after the design was changed so that disassembly in the middle was no longer possible, a change that significantly reduced the cost of the pen.
|Images © Daniel C. Holzer & Richard F. Binder|
Inevitably, Hommel’s pen spread beyond the immediate region. By 1889, it had reached the shores of England, where it was distributed by J. G. Smith & Company, a London stationery concern located in Queen Victoria-street. For their trade, Smith branded the pen as the “Sun” Perfect Fountain Pen. It is not clear whether they imported the product or received a license to manufacture it. The English trade press took notice of the new pen, and several publications wrote squib-length reviews of it. The review in the May 27, 1889, issue of the Journal of Education sang the praises of Hommel’s pen in glowing terms: “Every other fountain pen we have tried has proved a fons et origo mali. Dr Hommel…might truly christen his the fons juventutis ” Other reviews were similarly favorable.
The medical journal The Lancet, however, skewered the pen in its November 23, 1889, issue. In an article comparing Hommel’s pen and a pen invented by the Rev. Edmund Lacon, The Lancet found that neither instrument “[could] be said to be absolutely perfect.” In discussing Hommel’s pen, the writer took note of a deficiency that most or all of the other trade publications either failed to consider important or chose not to mention:
One distinguishing merit of Hommel’s pen is the ease with which, when the ink in the reservoir has become exhausted, the store may be replenished. This result may be effected by simply turning one section of the stem upon the other. To maintain the supply of ink to the nib, however, a slight version in the opposite direction is required at repeated intervals. [emphasis added] With the Lacon pen, which is of somewhat simpler construction, after the first filling, the supply of ink is maintained uninterruptedly.
In the United States, too, Hommel‘s pen was noticed. In its February 4, 1889, issue, The American Stationer included in its “New Patents” column a description of Hommel’s pen:
No. 394,183. Reservoir Pen.—Adolf Hommel, Zurich, Zwitzerland.
A fountain penholder which is filled with ink and ink supplied to the pen by simply turning a stem, and thus raising or lowering a piston by means of a threaded piston rod and a nut attached to the other half of the penholder to that in which the piston works.
This description captured concisely the essential novelty of the pen, its piston filler; but I have found no evidence that the pen was actually offered for sale in the United States.
Advertising for and reviews of Hommel’s pen disappear from the record suddenly in 1891, but the design did not fall out of use. Beginning after Hommel’s patent expired and continuing into the mid-1920s, cheap Austrian-made piston-filling pens made to Hommel’s design were sold under names such as Kosmos, Manos, Standard, Victoria, Yankee, and others. In the United States, they appeared principally in the classified advertising sections of general-circulation magazines at prices ranging from 25¢ to $1.00. (The example at right appeared on page 164 of the April 1914 issue of Popular Mechanics.) These pens were often fitted with untipped brass nibs and were made of a celluloid tube heat-swaged at the back end to hold the mechanism in place, in the same manner as with the Meteor pen shown above. By the mid-1920s, the $1.00 versions were vastly overpriced given the availability of true self-filling dollar fountain pens such as Ingersoll’s. Shown here are a 25¢ Manos pen (upper) and a $1.00 example branded “VICTORIA” Self-Filling Fountain Pen (lower).
Nor was Hommel’s design forgotten by the technical press. From 1876 to 1919, Scientific American published a weekly pamphlet called the Scientific American Supplement. Issues were numbered consecutively, not grouped as semiannual or annual volumes. Beginning with Issue No 1580, on April 14, 1906, the supplement ran a comprehensive and profusely illustrated nine-part series of articles titled “Reservoir, Fountain, and Stylographic Pens.” Part VI, dated May 19, 1906, deals with the period from 1886 to 1894, and in it we find the following description of Hommel’s pen:
In Fig. 141 we have Hommel’s patent of 1888 (7166), being another instance of the introduction of a mechanical arrangement for drawing in or discharging ink by means of a piston. Ink is supplied through the fine tube, R, to the nib, N.
Adolf Hommel’s pen presents a conundrum. It came into being just at the time when practical continuous-flow fountain pens were appearing from companies such as the L. E. Waterman Company and the Parker Pen Company, and Hommel’s manually operated ink delivery system was out of step with the times. Yet it embodied two remarkably innovative features that became widely accepted and used in the next 50 years:
Its filling system, which featured a non-rotating single-action screw-driven piston, was the progenitor of a line that culminated in the differential system invented by Theodor Kovàcs (U.S. Patent No 1,706,616) and implemented by Pelikan beginning in 1929, and of the single-acting system invented by Andreas Beinenstein (U.S. Patent No 1,902,809) and implemented in 1931 by Conklin.
Its use of celluloid as the body material in a reservoir pen was a major innovation that for 30 years was ignored by nearly everyone except the people who were making Hommel knockoffs. In about 1920, the Springfield, Massachusetts-based LeBoeuf Fountain Pen Company began making pens using celluloid tubes in a process developed by Frank LeBoeuf (U.S. Patent No 1,302,935). LeBoeuf was a small regional manufacturer, not able to exert a wide-ranging influence on the industry; but in 1924, Sheaffer, one of the Big Four, introduced Lifetime pens made of Radite, Sheaffer’s trade name for DuPont celluloid. After that, celluloid took off, replacing hard rubber within a decade.
Despite the technological advances in his pen, Hommel (and his company) fell victim to the all-too-common misstep of being first across the line. When his patent expired, the design of the Meteor pen fell into the hands of copy artists who appear to have made a good living from it; but the technology advanced, and as so often happens, the beneficiaries of his invention were awarded the laurels while the real innovator faded away and was almost lost in the mists of time.
I first saw copies of the French-language advertisement and the Gloomy Crier poem on Daniel Holzer’s website. Having seen them there, I sought out the original publications in order to provide my own copies rather than borrowing from Daniel.
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. My thanks to Daniel Holzer, who brought Adolf Hommel and his pen to my attention and provided some of the information, and two of the images, that I have used in this article. Thanks also to my friend Jeff Cooley, who kindly provided the Gloomy Crier translation.