Filling Systems

I carefully avoided talking about filling systems in the previous post because if I mixed that in, the discussion would have become endless. Let’s talk about them now! Filling systems do affect the way pens look – and much more!

The first really effective fountain pens were, of course, eyedropper fillers. The ED has a lot going for it. Without any attachments for self-filling the barrel is an unbroken surface for chasing or gold-plated or silver overlays. Those first pens were often especially beautiful. There were benefits with the eyedropper filler but, as most of us know from experience, they had a down side, too. Filling one is a risky business with a large quantity of ink being transported from an open bottle to the barrel – not to everyone’s taste! The benefit is that an ED holds a lot of ink so that pesky filling process doesn’t have to happen often. On the down side, when it gets to less than half full, it likes to drop ink.

Within a few short years, eyedropper fillers went from the not-too-efficient over-and-under feed to a much more efficient ink delivery system. If no one had come up with another way of filling pens we would have a super-duper ED filler by now judging by the speed of development in those first years of the twentieth century. It was not to be. New ways of filling pens quickly appeared. Though there were those who preferred the ED filler into the 1920s, it was soon left behind in the dust of history.

The first to crack the problem of a self filling pen was Onoto in 1905. The ingenious plunger filler was the brainchild of George Sweetser, a mechanical engineer, champion roller-skater and cross-dressing entertainer. Characters were big in the pen world in those days! Though comparatively expensive to make, the Onoto remains one of the best ink-in-the-barrel pens to this day. It has some of the same difficulties as the ED or, indeed, any other ink-in-the-barrel pen. Transfer of heat from the hand causes air to expand in the barrel, releasing blots of ink. Against that, the Onoto was simple and clean to fill with a single stroke and it held enough ink to make filling infrequent. The pen lasted a long time between services. Unlike later copies of the plunger filling system, the Onoto was designed to be serviced. The Onoto didn’t catch on in the US and the field remained open for someone to develop a self filler.

Only two short years later Sheaffer patented the lever filler, a filling system that took the world by storm. The internal latex sac didn’t hold as much ink as the ED filler or the Onoto but as it was easy and comparatively clean to refill, that didn’t matter. It was the perfect solution. Sheaffer guarded its patent litigiously and other manufacturers danced as close to that patent as they could without infringing it. Many ingenious alternatives appeared: matchstick fillers, coin fillers, the crescent filler. Though the crescent filler had its adherents none of the others caught on. Sheaffer had the field to itself – for a time. Waterman danced closer to the Sheaffer method than anyone. Their lever did not hinge on a pin drilled into the barrel, as the Sheaffer did. Instead, a frame containing the lever was fitted into a slot cut out of the barrel; the famous Waterman box lever. It was the answer! It was tremendously successful and the company used that system for many years. Parker produced the ingenious button filler which grabbed another large section of the market.

However implemented, all those pens were sac fillers, easy to fill and convenient in use. Because the ink in the sac was insulated from the heat of the hand, dropping of blobs of ink didn’t happen with those pens. Though developers continued to search for other methods of filling a pen, the industry had found the filling method that solved all the problems and remained the system of choice for decades.


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