From Reed Pens to Fountain Pens

India Ink, still used by artists today, is thousands of years old. Liquid pigments are much older. 40,000 years ago in some cold cave, one of our prehistoric ancestors was probably already wondering how to keep that blasted ink off their fingers!

India ink and roller 5990160974
India Ink and Roller, Image Courtesy – Wikimedia Commons

The Journey from Reed Pens to Fountain Pens

Tools helped a little. They meant not having to resort to finger painting. Some form of pen or stylus must surely be as old as ink itself. Proto-humans who could hunt down giant mastodons were not stupid. The reed pen was in use for thousands of years throughout the ancient world. The quill lasted over a thousand. Why did it take us so long to make a pen which doesn’t leak?

Pen MET 97 4 97 101
Reed Pens, Image Courtesy – Wikimedia Commons

The trick seems simple enough. Invent a device to store the ink in the pen rather than rely on dipping it in ink to write. This ink reservoir idea was invented and reinvented many times over the millennia and yet the fountain pen came into popular use less than two hundred years ago. It turns out making an ink pen with a reservoir in large numbers was a complex jigsaw puzzle of technologies which took us a long time to get to.

One of the earliest mentions of a pen with an ink reservoir is around 950CE. Though we don’t have too many details besides the poetic praise of contemporary historians, the Caliph of Egypt at the time had a pen with a reservoir made because he was tired of being lord of all the lands but still having ink-stained fingers and robes. Ancient Royalty Problems.

If you’ve read enough pop-history on the internet, you shouldn’t be surprised that Leonardo da Vinci is going to appear in our story too. That guy is everywhere! Da Vinci made detailed diagrams of a pen with an ink reservoir in his famous notebooks. Some believe he used one of these himself because his notebooks are written in a consistent line quality which is unlike quill penmanship of the time.

512px Leonardo da vinci Flying machine
Flying Machine by Leonardo da Vinci, made with metal point, pen and ink on paper, Image Courtesy – Wikimedia Commons

In the middle ages, there were attempts to make reservoirs for quill pens made of secondary quills! Those must have been interesting contraptions. Geese and swans must have held on to their feathers in fear hoping they wouldn’t come into vogue. The thing we don’t realize today is that quills were made only of the large flight feathers of fairly large birds like geese. They could only produce a few of these in their lifetime so it wasn’t an infinite supply. To add to the scarcity, the quill tip would wear out on the rough paper and parchment textures every week or two of regular writing.

17th century quills 20190406 101211
17th Century Quills, Image Courtesy – Wikimedia Commons

Only in the 1800s did we start consistently turning out good quality metal nibs. The first patent for a pen with an ink reservoir was granted in 1827 and the modern idea of the fountain pen was conceived.

Patent fountain pen
Patent for the the world’s first fountain pen, 25 May 1827, Image Courtesy – Wikimedia Commons

Fountain pens took over the world, for a very brief time in the larger scheme of things. In another hundred years the ball pen was invented and took over as the even more leak-proof, even more hassle-free writing instrument of choice. And that is how ink smudges became history. Almost.

  1. Dip Pens are legendary and used for lettering, illustration and comic drawings. We tested some dip pens. Watch here –
  2. We tested the Hauser Inx Jazz fountain pen aimed at students in India. We found it to be a wonderful drawing and writing instrument, and a great starter fountain pen for those on a budget. Read here –
Share your stationery love