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Fountain Pens Continue to Draw Writers
Innovative Philadelphia engineer pushes the envelope to create old school tools for scriveners
PHILADELPHIA _ The fountain pen as a practical writing instrument has been declared obsolete numerous times. It was supposedly doomed by the innovations of the drip-free ballpoint pen and the typewriter, then the computer keyboard, and now the ability to automatically render voices into text on cellphones.
But the 19th-century invention has defied total extinction and is even evolving.
In a warehouse in a gritty Philadelphia neighborhood, mechanical engineer Ian Schon is doing something no one else in America does: manufacturing writing implements with nibs — the business end of the fountain pen — handcrafted from titanium.
“The way we’re doing it is really what makes us separate from the other brands and other companies that have done this in the past, which is utilizing equipment in this workshop that’s traditionally designed for aerospace or medical manufacturing and repurposing it to create an innovative, unique experience that is just different,” says Schon.
Not only different in the 21st century, it is counterintuitive — with a risky investment in expensive equipment to make a pricey product for a niche market.
“A fountain pen is impractical. It can be messy. It’s not as good as a ballpoint pen. It’s expensive. So, it’s really in line with the culture of the pen user that it’s irrational and strange,” explains Schon.
“The next wave of fountain pen collectors and users will be rebelling against technology,” he predicts. “They’ll hate how much time their parents spent on Facebook when they should have been out hiking in the woods. They’ll want to throw their cellphones into the sea.”
Schon, who also successfully tried his hand at watchmaking, is no Luddite. His company is a product of the digital age. The one-man startup was initially funded through Kickstarter in 2011, and the founder produces his own YouTube videos to explain his production process and promote the pens, which range in price between $125 and $400. He also manufactures a few models of ballpoint and rollerball pens for those who decline to dive into the retro era of refillable ink.
The metal nib makes the fountain pen distinct from all other writing instruments. It was an innovation for its time, allowing continuous writing without having to repeatedly dip the pen into ink. Early prototypes were around more than a thousand years ago; Leonardo da Vinci may have used a fountain pen he developed.
Investment analyst Tony Blair shows off his collection at Philadelphia’s 130-year-old Pen & Pencil Club, formed by the city’s journalists, who wielded fountain pens to conduct their interviews.
For Blair, the antiquated writing instrument endures as an antidote to the digital age.
“Any time you introduce input/output like you do with a computer, now there’s also these other distractions. You’ll get a pop-up, and I’ll lose my thread. Or if I type up something, am I going to remember it the same way? I think writing by hand helps you remember it,” says Blair, pulling out a fountain pen from a zip-up traveling case holding nearly two dozen of his favorite models.
Blair recalls that his first fountain pen was a secondhand Pilot Metropolitan with a medium nib he purchased for $10.
Fountain pens are meant to last a long time, another reason some prefer them over disposable ballpoints. Fountain pens can be customized with different colors of ink and types of nibs. But there are inconveniences.
“You have to refill it with ink. You are much more likely to spill ink on yourself or something else than you are with a standard disposable ballpoint,” Blair warns.
By the late 19th century, the Waterman and Parker brands were mass marketed in America. Fountain pens became more commonplace than dip pens around the time of the First World War, although early 20th-century schoolchildren were still learning how to write with the older implements. That explains why you may still come across an old school desk with a hole in it — for the inkwell.
By the 1960s, the ballpoint pen had become fashionable. Subsequent generations who did not get instruction in cursive script are likely to find the fountain pen as mysterious as the rotary dial phone or the film camera.
Liz Sieber is accustomed to encountering such curious novices. She is the owner of Philadelphia’s Omoi Zakka, a Japanese-themed stationery shop selling fountain pens, writing paper and ink.
“Some people really understand what the different nibs are about and the difference between a machine-aligned or a hand-aligned nib. And then we also meet a lot of people who have never tried one before and are looking for something that’s not too expensive, easy to use, plays nice with a lot of different types of paper,” says Sieber, standing in front of a tray containing fountains pens and ink bottles for sale.
Most modern nibs are made of steel, gold or iridium, and the fountain pen bodies are made of ebonite, stainless steel or sterling silver. A true fountain pen also has a self-contained reservoir for ink, loaded manually or with a cartridge insert.
Sieber is a fan of a Sailor brand pen from Japan that has a 14-karat gold nib.
“The art of that nib is that it’s gold, which is a very soft metal. So, as I hold it, it will become shaped uniquely to the way that I hold the pen,” she says.
More stores in Japan than in the United States carry Schon’s made-in-Philadelphia pens, thus creating a tiny entry on the export side of America’s trade deficit ledger.
“I love that challenge. I love being the underdog,” says Schon.
That challenge is also writing a new page in the story of American entrepreneurship.
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Watch the video version of this story at VOA News: https://www.voanews.com/a/fountain-pens-continue-to-draw-writers-/7077327.html