Welcome to the Pen Biology 101 class. In this class we will peer into the mysteries of the most dangerous instrument of all: The Pen. Many people quote Edward Bulwer-Lytton when they say “The pen is mightier than the sword”, but how can this be? Let’s explore by starting with the fountain pen.
Fountain pens are a refinement of pens that have been around for a mind-boggling long time. In fact, the first pens bore little resemblance of what fountain pens are today. For pens, it all started with a sharpened reed. This reed was dipped in ink and then was used to write on papyrus. This was the most common (and possibly only) type of pen used when the Bible was written. But, this constant dipping was painstaking and messy. The ink was either dried up or was consumed on the paper within seconds of writing, so it had to be dipped constantly. Additionally, the tips didn’t stay sharp for long.
The iconic quill pen came next and solved some of these problems. The quill pen was slightly better than the reed because it had the characteristic slit cut into the quill allowing for ink to be stored and the tips stayed sharper for longer. This pen was used in medieval times to write down records of deaths and other useful information. It was even used to write the United States Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.
But even before that, some historians believe that the first modern fountain pen was used way back in the tenth century by an early innovator. It is believed that the man using this pen didn’t want to get his hands dirty anymore with his ink so he asked some clever engineers to come up with something better. They created a nib with an ink reservoir, similar in concept to what is used today.
There are many types of fountain pens, but the most common is the nib and cartridge pen. These pens use metal nibs with a slit in the metal to dispense the ink. This slit is then connected to an ink cartridge or pump where the ink is held. How the pen writes is pure science. Let’s take a molecule of ink, for example. This molecule is surrounded by other molecules of the same type inside an ink cartridge. When writing, gravity pulls one molecule out on to the paper and, because of molecular bonding, another ink molecule comes out with it, which pulls another and so on. This is called Capillary Action and it is a major part of how this type of fountain pen works.
The next type of fountain pen is the dip pen. These, as the name implies, must be dipped constantly in ink in order to write with them. These are the predecessors of modern fountain pens and include the aforementioned quill and reed pens along with modern dip pens. The modern dip pen is able to hold a slightly larger amount of ink than the quill pen and has a metal tip.
Modern fountain pens come in all shapes, colors, and sizes. All of which, however, have two parts: The nib and the ink.
The nib is the most characteristic part of the pen. It has the fancy metal work and, more importantly, does the writing. Nibs, like pens, come in many sizes and widths. Nib sizes go from Extra-fine (really, really small print) to Extra-wide (think of the Grand Canyon). There are different classifications of nibs as well. Circular nibs have what looks like a little ball at the end of the nib. A stub nib is the same as a circular nib only elongated horizontally. An italic nib is the widest nib horizontally and is often used in calligraphy. Each nib has a different effect when writing. The circular nib’s writing is the same as a normal ballpoint pen, but because of how wide the stub and italic nibs are, you can create special effects.
The Ink is like the fountain pen’s blood. If it is too runny, it bleeds. If it doesn’t write, then it has a blood clot and it needs to go seek medical attention. What I am talking about is called the ink’s viscosity, or how liquid the ink is. Too viscous and the pen won’t write at all, and if it is not viscous enough the ink flows too much. Ink flow is also related to nib size as to how much comes out through the nib. The bigger the nib, the greater the amount of ink that hits the page. Another aspect of ink is its pH value. pH measures the acidity of the ink on a range of 0 to 14, where 0 is acidic and 14 is basic (think the opposite of acidic), and 7 is neutral. Ink that is at a neutral pH is ideal because it will not react with the paper it is written on. Acidic and Basic ink will react with the paper and will degrade both the paper and ink, thereby sacrificing the integrity of the document.
So why is a pen dangerous?
The main reason us that it is sharp, not only physically but also socially. A man or woman with a fountain pen is a force to be reckoned with, especially if he or she knows how to use it. It can create beautiful lines of text and can make you look like a pro. In many cases, it is much easier to write with because very little pressure is needed to make the ink flow. It has rubbed shoulders with the Declaration of Independence and has shaken hands with the God of the Bible. All in all, the fountain pen is an admired work of art for any group of people, young and old, and shall be for years to come.