The Influencers

Why does your pen look the way it does? There are a host of concepts that come together in the design of any pen: aesthetics, ergonomics, practicality, fashion and inheritance, just for a start. The first fountain pens were strongly influenced by the dip pens that preceded them; long, light and slender. It took a while for the ergonomics to kick in. Later eyedropper fillers like the Swan Safety Screw Cap were already thicker and hence more comfortable to write with. People may argue about this but I would posit that the fountain pen came of age in 1921 with Parker’s Duofold. The Duofold was so successful and so obviously right that for decades thereafter it remained the paradigm of the fountain pen. Twenty years later some companies were still turning out pens that adhered to the pattern of the Duofold. We may call this copying, we may call it homage, we may call it an inherited design. In truth, the Duofold provided the answer to so many questions about fountain pen design that it would be foolish, indeed perverse, to ignore it and make some other design.

Eight years later someone tried to do exactly that. The new design wasn’t about practicality. It was just another sac filler. Nothing new there but the Sheaffer Balance was about aesthetics and fashion. With cars, aeroplanes and trains all becoming streamlined, the concept of the slippery shape was in the air and Sheaffer saw that. It didn’t alter how the pen worked, was held or posted but it was the new thing. It caught on slowly on this side of the Atlantic, mostly appearing here in the post-war period. It’s fair to say, I think, that many – even most – manufacturers ignored the Balance paradigm. Though it was a huge success for Sheaffer itself and the company stuck with it into the twenty-first century it was not as influential as the Duofold.

The final influencer (for my purposes) was the Parker 51. It arrived too late in the fountain pen story to be especially influential. There have been quite a few concealed-nib pens and many more with metal caps but the 51 has had surprisingly little effect on the subsequent design of the fountain pen. Again it was a huge success itself – perhaps the most successful fountain pen of all – but it did not create an idea that lasted the course to any great degree.

You’ll note that as far as I can I’m avoiding talking about filling systems. It’s true that they influence how a pen looks but only to limited extent. Ideas are the main determinants. As the forties and fifties went on several big-selling pens were made in the torpedo style – Vacumatics, for instance, British Duofolds and their kin, post-war Watermans and so on. That shape, rounded but more subtle than the Balance quickly took over. For many pens today, that remains true. So many Japanese pens look like Montblancs but Montblancs look like those earlier pens. No-one can lay claim to that design.

Does appearance matter? Of course it does. An appealing design is one of several things that lead to success in pen sales. All of those greatly varying pen designs were likely to be adequately comfortable in the hand and practical for their intended purpose. There are several pens, I think, that escape the Duofold, Balance or 51 patterns, owing little to those pen designs. A couple of examples are the Swan 0160 and 1060 produced during World War II. Very slightly tapered with a clip held by a screw but very different from the Duofold way of doing that. It is almost as if those pens were designed in a vacuum from first fountain pen principles.

Of course I’m ignoring a great many designs but that’s because I don’t believe that they were ground-breaking in the way the Duofold, Balance and 52 were. I’m writing this with a US Duofold Junior but even this very comfortable pen is inducing writer’s cramp now. There’s more to say on this subject but it’s for another day.

5 thoughts on “The Influencers

  1. Interesting and thought provoking. To think that for centuries the mighty quill, reed/ or brush were the only means of writing (depending were we lived) it’s funny how Duofold was considered the right size. Now with reed/brush one can have different sizes, but with quills it’s always the same. So it makes me wonder if Duofold is/ was the right size?

    1. Well of course the right size for one is wrong for another but the Duofold-sized pen has persisted for a century so it’s working for some people. Writing pages with a quill must have been hard on the hand!

  2. It is hard for us. Because we’re not used it. Our ‘forefathers’ wrote for centuries with quills….. Dufold reign was at the most 50/60 years (and I being generous) before the advent of Bic, which was in place replaced by others and now by keyboard. Probably in 20 years, our children will be communicating with a neural interface 😉

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