A fountain pen is a type of writing instrument, more specifically a pen, that contains a reservoir of water-based ink that is fed to a nib through a "feed" via a combination of gravity and surface tension. Refilling ink either involves replacing an ink cartridge, filling with an eyedropper, or using one of a variety of internal mechanisms to suck ink from a bottle.
The earliest historical record of a reservoir pen dates to the 10th century, and the earliest reservoir pens to survive date to the 18th century. Progress was slow, however, up until the early 19th century, after which there was a steadily accelerating stream of fountain pen patents and pens in production. It was only after three key inventions were in place, however, that the fountain pen became a widely popular writing instrument. Those inventions were the iridium-tipped gold nib; hard rubber; and free flowing ink.
The first fountain pens making use of all these key ingredients came out in the 1850s, but it was in the 1880s that the era of the mass produced fountain pen finally began. The dominant producers in this pioneer era were Waterman and Wirt, based in New York City and Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, respectively. Waterman soon outstripped Wirt, along with the many companies that sprung up to fill the new and growing fountain pen market, and remained the market leader up until the early 1920s.
The fountain pen was commonly used in the past but has become more of a status symbol and collectible since the mass production of the ballpoint pen and other easier to use pens in the mid 20th century.
Together with the mass manufactured pencil and the introduction of cheap wood based paper the fountain pen was responsible for a major transformation in writing and in the nature of paperwork during the 19th century. They gave birth to the precursor of the modern office, which would only come about at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th with the gradual introduction of the typewriter and early duplicating machines.
The fountain pen, and to a lesser extent the pencil replaced the relatively hard to use combination of the quill, blotter and sand tray employed till then for writing. In the Harry Potter movies, and in some reenactments of historical writing acts, using a quill pen seems like a fast and colorful activity but it was in fact a complex and often frustrating exercise due to the irregular flow of ink from the quill, and other factors. In a sense, the introduction of the fountain pen can be compared to the advent of the early command line word processor and the dot matrix printer which appeared before graphic word processing software and the laser printer.
The nib of the fountain pen is usually made of stainless steel or gold. Gold nibs are tipped with a hard, wear-resistant alloy that typically utilizes metals from the platinum group. Tipping material is often called "iridium", even though hardly any penmakers still use that metal in their tipping alloys. Steel nibs may also have harder tips; those with steel points will wear more rapidly due to abrasion by the paper.
The nib usually has one slit cut down its center, to convey the ink down the nib. The whole nib narrows to a point where the ink is transferred to the paper. Broad calligraphy pens may have several slits in the nib to increase ink flow and help distribute it evenly across the broad point.
Although the most common nibs end in a point of various sizes (fine, medium, broad), other nib shapes are available. Examples of this are oblique, reverse oblique, and italic.
Fountain pens are widely regarded to be the best tools for writing or drawing with ink on paper. However, they are more expensive, harder to maintain, and more fragile than a ballpoint pen. In addition, they cannot be used with the various oil and particle-based inks (such as india ink) prized by artists, as can a dip pen, reed, or quill.
Fountain pens are often works of art. Ornate pens are sometimes made of precious metals and jewels. However, good quality steel pens are available for only a few dollars. Even some "disposable" fountain pens are available.
An avid community of pen enthusiasists collect and use antique as well as modern pens and also collect and exchange information about old and modern inks, ink bottles, and inkwells. Collectors often tend to prize being able to actually use the antiques, instead of merely placing them under glass for show.
Companies that manufacture fountain pens include Parker, Pelikan, Waterman, and Sheaffer. Companies who manufacture high quality ink include Aurora, Sheaffer, Parker, Pelikan, Montblanc, Private Reserve and the French company Herbin. Pilot is one of only a few companies that make disposable fountain pens.