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This article is a revised and expanded version of one that first appeared in the Autumn 2009 issue of Stylus magazine.
It’s probably not news to you that fountain pens, these days, are in some ways more luxury items than they are essential writing instruments. Except for the few who are suffering hand pain from disease or injury and can benefit from the relaxed ease fountain pens alone permit, none of us really needs to use a fountain pen. Gel pens are really pretty close to fountain pens in their ease and comfort, after all.
So why do we persist in using these archaic marking sticks? For some of us it’s pleasure in the pens themselves, for others it’s the aforementioned relaxed ease, and for yet others it’s the feeling of luxury that a gorgeous hunk of gold in the hand produces. But do we really need that big gold nib? It might be interesting to explore the whys and wherefores of large nibs and see where we end up.
The first fountain pens evolved from dip pens; tinkerers modified their penholders to be reservoirs that would leak ink down the nib, and then they tried to work out a reliable feed system to control the leakage. It’s not surprising, then, that early fountain pen nibs looked much like the dip nibs from which they descended. The first illustration shows a Waterman’s Ideal No 24, a taper-cap, eyedropper-filling pen from around 1900, together with a Victorian dip pen. If you collect pens of that era, you may wonder about the breather hole in the fountain pen’s nib, a feature that very few gold dip nibs have. It was thought that a breather hole was necessary to allow the transfer of air into the reservoir as ink went the other way. It turns out that there really is no need for a breather hole, and many modern fountain pens lack them.
On the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” principle, nibs really didn’t change in any significant way until the 1940s. (Feeds did, but that’s another story.) Below is a Waterman’s Hundred Year Pen De Luxe from 1940–1941. Now this is a large pen, and as an expensive model it featured a huge nib to match its size and confer a luxurious appearance befitting a pen you might see in the hands of a corporate CEO or a high-priced attorney. Very few pens, even today, lay out more bling at the writing end than this pen.
While myriad pen companies of the era also sold pens with ordinary nibs like Waterman’s, change was on the horizon. As the pace of life sped up, the pen-using public began to clamor for faster-drying ink. In the labs at Parker during the 1930s, alchemists were cooking up just such a product. They came up with an ink that would dry so fast that you could drag a finger along half an inch behind the nib without smearing the line you had just drawn. There were a couple of problems, however. The new ink ate celluloid, the material of which virtually all pens were made at that time, and it dried so fast that it would dry out in the nib and feed of an ordinary pen while the pen was in use. (The bigger the nib, the more exposure to air, and the faster the ink would dry out.)
Solving the first problem was easy: make a new pen out of something that the ink wouldn’t eat. Solving the second problem was more difficult, but a solution was found: build a hood around the nib so that almost none of it was exposed to air, and add a secondary reservoir (called the ink collector, or simply “collector”) within that hood, so close to the nib that it could readily supply ink to replace that which evaporated during use. The result (shown below) was the most revolutionary fountain pen since Lewis Waterman’s discovery of the channeled feed, the incomparable Parker “51” of 1941.
Parker’s advertising for the “51” and its companion “51” ink — later reformulated as Superchrome, not quite so vicious but still pretty corrosive — stressed that only the “51” pen could use “51” ink. But that didn’t mean the “51” couldn’t use other inks. In fact, it could and did with great aplomb, I might add, and so well that for some people it’s still the best pen ever made. The hood and collector make the “51” so resistant to dryout that it can rest uncapped longer than just about any other pen in existence.
Other companies emulated the hooded nib of the “51”; two of the most successful were Waterman’s Taperite (introduced in 1945) and the Aurora 88 (introduced in 1947), seen below. Neither of these pens has a nib that is entirely hooded, but in Aurora’s case the partially hooded nib was combined with an ingenious feed design. The 88 runs the “51” a close second in the hearts of those who appreciate the innovative pens of that era.
Sheaffer took a different approach to the dryout problem. In 1942, that company introduced a new line of pens featuring the “TRIUMPH” point, a conical nib that completely encircled the gripping section, providing space within its conical shape for a much larger feed than had been used formerly. The enlarged feed held more ink closer to the nib, making the additional fluid available to the nib in much the same way as with Parker’s collector. The Sheaffer design was not suitable for use with “51“ ink, of course; even had Sheaffer switched from celluloid to acrylic to deal with the corrosive nature of the ink, there was still too much exposed area to keep “51” ink from drying. But it was more than adequate for use with ordinary inks.
Sheaffer continued making pens with “TRIUMPH” points until 1998, when it retired the Crest (below), a modern pen resembling the Snorkel of the 1950s. (Parker had retired the “51” in the 1970s.)
So why don’t we see hooded-nib pens being made today? Other than the Parker 100 (below, upper), a twenty-first-century updating of the “51”, no maker of high-line pens has offered a real hooded nib since the Parker 61 (below, lower).
In an ironic twist, the “51” may have sown the seeds of hooded nibs’ demise. After an abortive effort to replace the deadly corrosive “51” ink with Superchrome, Parker fell back on Quink, its excellent and long-lived “ordinary” ink. Without the need to keep superfast-drying ink from drying out, there really was no need for hoods, and Parker’s last true hooded-nib pen was the 61, introduced in 1956 and retired in 1982.
The real legacy of the “51” was its collector. Fitted with lots of fins to create capillary paths, the collector had great flow-buffering capability and anti-dryout qualities, and it wasn’t long until competitors’ feed designs began acquiring increasing numbers of fins, both within the section and under the nib where they’re exposed. The net result is that big nibs don’t have dryout problems under ordinary usage conditions, and that means — as you can see from the fifth photo, a customized Montblanc 149 — we’re free to enjoy that bling.
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