Posted in good design, our work, tools of the trade by hemmant jha on April 12, 2009

fountain pen for artists.

While in graduate school studying architecture, I enrolled in a class on mechanical instrumentation. Located in the Sterling Chemistry building on the Yale University campus, this class taught precision machining to graduate students, mainly ones from the physics and chemistry schools. Tony Massini, master machinist, encouraged a thorough understanding of materials – their characteristics and quirks, and what made them unique. In addition, he made a mean espresso right there in the lab.

I found all of this incredibly fascinating and spent more time at the lab than I did in architecture school. One of my projects created at the lab is this fountain pen for artists, along with several associated tools and components.

The intent is summed up beautifully in this piece written by a friend – it is reproduced here in its entirety. Drawings and illustrations are by this author.



Pen Project

or, The Need to Write with Speed

At first glance it appears that someone with a strong fetish for radial symmetry has designed a fountain pen, as this pen’s nib has a cross section that is almost ornamental in its combination of circles and right angles.  Upon learning how the pen works, and by writing with it, however, one sees that this particular configuration was formed for very specific reasons.  What appears to be arbitrary and decorative turns out to be, by some coincidence of the rules of design and physics, an almost completely determined object.

Yet, this is not, actually, the beauty of the pen.  To regard it as a functionally sound accomplishment would be to overlook the mystery it holds.  The curious explanation for the pen’s shape lies hidden, and is not found in the process of making it, nor in discovery by experimentation, nor in the materials chosen.  There is no story to tell about its development, for it worked according to the first sketch.

The only really interesting thing about its formation lies in its unexpected derivation, its etymology.  For the pen is not an improved version of the usual fountain pen, with its slanted tip, and a slit for ink.  That pen is descended from the feather quill with its angle cut tip and hollow channel.  Instead, the ideal for this pen comes from the antithesis of the pen, from its wooden opposite.  This pen is a pencil that uses ink.  It is the idea of a writing instrument transposed from the world of pencils to the world of pens.

What evidence is there for this strange assertion?  How can a pen mimic the sensitive immediacy of a sharpened point of a lead pencil?  The cross section gives the first visible clue, for it is entirely unlike that of a typical fountain pen.  It is relentlessly symmetrical about the central point.  The four planes of the nib taper from the radius of the body down to a point, which is the contact point where writing occurs, allowing ink to meet paper.  As in a phillips head screwdriver, the cross-shaped configurations of the planes describe an equal distribution (of force for a screwdriver, in this case of ink) using a round tool.

The pen’s capillaries surround this cross, diffused about the center equally, a sort of compound eye.  Instead of the single hollow channel or gap that allows ink to flow in a traditional pen, the ink comes from the residual spaces between the square corners of the cross shape and the tiny round wires inserted into the interior corners of the cross-shaped nib (see diagram).  Since there are four capillaries for ink flow, rather than one, there is no chance of an interruption of the ink, as often happens in a single channel pen.  This allows it to spin, twist, and accommodate various pressures without stops in the line.

Not only the number of the capillaries, but their shape, gives another clue to the idea behind the pen,  If the cross section creates a place analogous to the central lead of a pencil, then the liquid ink, which has to do the job of the lead, must co-occupy this space.  In other words, the closer to the central point, the better.  In the pen, this is achieved with the tiny wires that are wedged into the small interior corners of the cross-shaped planar nib.  They crowd the ink into the corners.  The minute gap created between the perfectly square element and the perfectly circular one gives the ink a place to seep down the nib, as close to the center as possible, and all around it.  The place for the ink is the result of the geometrical equation, L-O.  Similar spaces left by small round wires allow the air to flow up into the ink chamber, without which, naturally, the ink could not flow.

The result is a writing tip that acts like a pencil, imitating it not in appearance but in action.  Like a freshly sharpened wooden pencil, it has a smooth slope, and one can write or draw with either the very tip or the angled side.  (Since it is not exactly a tapered cone, but a cross shape, a slight twist of the pen creates small differences in line width, depending on whether one or two planes are touching paper.  This is one of the features that make it belong again to the pen family.)

When all explanations and metaphorical comparisons are finished, however, we should forget them and simply write with the pen, for its entire purpose is not to make itself an object of our attention, but to disappear from our consciousness while we use it, as any good tool should do.


Sharon Joyce, Yale University


For more on pens, inks, notebooks and related matters, please visit these posts : tools of the trade.




5 Responses

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  1. 64 « thinkmore said, on April 13, 2009 at 6:01 pm

    […] more on pens, inks, notebooks and related matters, please visit these posts – 1, […]

  2. 71 « thinkmore said, on April 20, 2009 at 10:54 am

    […] more on pens, inks, notebooks and related matters, please visit these posts – 1,  2, […]

  3. 63 « thinkmore said, on April 20, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    […] more on pens, inks, notebooks and related matters, please visit these posts – 1, […]

  4. 73 « thinkmore said, on April 24, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    […] and fabricated along with the fountain pen for artists, this is a holder for a cherished pen or […]

  5. work @ YSOA « hemmant jha said, on October 8, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    […] fountain pen for artists. […]

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