“ The first English patent for the making of metallic pens was that of Bryan Donkin, specified March 14, 1808. It is thus described in the Patent Office volume of Abridgments – Writing Instruments, and Materials (p.15) : - “A pen upon a new construction.” The pen of any “metal or material fit or proper for the purpose” may be made, first, of two separate parts, “flat or nearly so,” with “those parts of the flat sides opposed to each other, and forming the slit of the pen, rather thicker towards the points, in order to prevent the pen from spluttering.” They are then put into a “a tube or pipe, or other fit receptacle, applied to each other in an angular position,” and “do constitute a pen.” Secondly, “of one entire piece” (still preserving the flatness instead of the usual cylindrical form), and bent to the proper angle before it is inserted into the tube. “For the purpose of obtaining a variable degree of hardness” for the pen, whether made of one or two pieces, the “sides, when affixed to a proper receptacle,” are inserted into an outer tube, in which “the pen may be drawn backward or forward, so as to alter the stiffness of the spring.” Or, “a greater or less degree of elasticity” is obtained “by introducing two pieces of wire, of an appropriate shape, into the cavity formed between the flat sides of the pen and the outer tube.”
The next patent was that of Frederick Bartholomew Folsch and William Howard (March 4, 1809) for a pen “made of glass, enamel, of any sort of stone or metal,” through which a hole can be drilled. The hole at the point of the pen “is very small, but becomes larger a trifling distance therefrom.” In May of the same year, Bartholomew Folsch took out another patent in his own name alone, for a pen “which may be made of any sort of metal,” to be used in a pen-holder fitted with a spiral spring, which presses forward a, “socket, “the lower part of which “is made in the shape of a common pen with a slit up the nib.” The socket is hollow to contain ink; a plate is soldered to the socket, so as to fit “ nearly close to the inner part or bottom of the nib.”
Between 1809 and 1818 there are no patents for pens. In the last mentioned year (Oct, 31, 1818) a curious patent was taken out by Charles Watt, to protect an invention for coating quill pens with gold. The pen to be so treated is first dipped into “a dilute aqueous solution of nitromuriate of gold”; is then dried, and “exposed in a close vessel to the action of phosphoretted hydrogen gas until a revived pellicle of gold appears”; is next “suspended in another close vessel over sulphurous acid gas”; and is then dried, and again dipped into the solution of gold for five minutes. These processes are to be repeated until the coating of gold is thick enough.
Another interval of nearly ten years elapsed, and then (July 4, 1827) George Poulton obtained a patent for a reservoir tube to hold ink; the pen to be made of steel, “cased with metal” to “prevent corrosion”; the reservoir to be fitted with a valve to regulate the flow of ink.
We now arrive at a period of activity and fertility of invention in regard to the making of steel pens – the beginning of the development which converted the production of such implements from more or less ingenious isolated experiments into a great and steadily expanding industrial manufacture. The credit of the first movement in this direction belongs to Mr James Perry, of Red Lion Square, London, who in April 1830 took out a patent for a new method of making pens. He described it as “an improvement or improvements in or upon pens.” The specification claims that the improvement consists in producing pens from “hard, thin, and elastic metal,” with the necessary flexibility, and a “length of slitted or cleft space” scarcely exceeding that of quill pens. This object is effected, first, “by a central aperture, space, or hole,” of circular, oval, square, or other shape, formed in the pen between the nib and the shoulders, or “extending considerably below the shoulders and towards the nib, in connection with a central slit”; secondly, by making between the nib and the shoulders “one or more lateral slits” on each side of the central slit, and “rising out of or branching from” it. The most suitable material to be employed is the very best steel, “brought to a spring temper.” The pens “should be of about the same diameter as those made from quills.”
In January 1832, Mr James Perry took out a second parent, for improvements designed to secure greater flexibility in steel pens. This invention, as described in the Abridgment of Specifications, consisted in a new arrangement “of cuts and open spaces formed so near to the slit of the pen, and in such directions as regards the said slit, as to cause a greater flexibility in the nibs of metal pens, all such cuts and open spaces being formed at the sides of the central parts of the pen, and opening out at the sides of the said central part, above, at, or below its shoulders, and either wholly or in part in a direction including from the sides of the pen towards the said central part,” and sufficiently near it to obtain an increased flexibility in the nib.
As above mentioned, these patents constitute the basis of the steel pen
manufacture – the production of pens from flat, thin, highly tempered steel, and the use of cuts or openings in various positions between the nib and the shoulder, so as to secure the flexibility essential to rapid and easy writing. Since 1830, down to the present date, great numbers of patents have been taken out for the making of pens, both by the more widely known manufacturers and by inventors whose methods either died almost at their birth, or were absorbed by the great pen-making firms. These patents deal with every branch of production – the metal used, the machinery employed, the shapes of pens, the position of the cuts or openings, and the processes of colouring ; reservoir or fountain pens; pen-holders, pen-boxes and cards – everything, indeed, which by the utmost stress of ingenuity, or the most unrestrained exercise of fancy, can be brought into relationship with metal pens and their adjuncts.
A year after Harrison’s business became his own, Josiah Mason largely increased his profits by an invention which made the “beveling” of split-rings quicker and easier; and the very machine he made is so perfect of its kind. And so strong, that it is still in use in Lancaster Street. These premises became his own about four years after the purchase of the business, and by that time – 1828 – Mason was beginning to make pens as well as split-rings. The first were “barrels,” but soon after he saw a “slip,” or “nib,” and not only determined to make that kind also, but saw at once that the one made by the famous Perry might be much improved.
The price was three and sixpence for nine, which certainly seems rather high, as they were by no means first-rate tools. Josiah saw them in a shop window, and on going in to buy one, found the owner of the business busy writing. He gave the pens but a poor character, describing the one in his hand as “a regular pin.” He wanted, however, to sell his customer the complete card; but, after some persuasion, Josiah succeeded in getting the one already in use for sixpence, and that very night he made three – an imitation, but also an improvement. The name and address of the maker was stamped rather indistinctly on “the regular pin” – James Perry, Red Lion Square, London; so Josiah put the best of his three pens in a letter, paid ninepence postage, and dispatched it to that address.
James Perry was immensely astonished – astonished, very likely, not only at the improved pen, but also that this way of making a pen should never have occurred to himself. Who “Josiah Mason” was he had not the slightest idea; but he must go to Birmingham at once and find out, for he saw that if he could get pens made like this, everybody would buy them, and he too would grow rich. But a journey to Birmingham was not then a matter of a few hours in a comfortable railway carriage. One must go lumbering along in a coach which might call itself "fast"; but, even with the best of horses, the drive must be rather a tedious one.
But, in spite of difficulties, James Perry and Josiah Mason met for the first time in less than two days after Mason had made his first "slip" pen, and a very important meeting it was. Perry knew that if he could persuade Mason to promise to make these wonderful new pens only for him, he would soon make a fortune; and Mason contended that if he invented the pen, his name, not Perry's, ought to be stamped upon it. However, they were both straightforward business men, and though looking out, naturally enough, for their own interests, were not trying to defraud or over-reach each other; so it was agreed that if Perry would buy pens only of Mason, he should, as the first manufacturer, continue to stamp his name upon them all. Mason, however, was free to sell to other customers. As Josiah was never at all anxious to publish his name abroad, and content both to work and to give, unknown and in silence, we can imagine that he was induced to give way on this point without much difficulty.
All the energy of the split-ring maker was now thrown into the manufacture of steel pens, and for more than forty years he continued to supply Perry with increasing quantities. Even as early as 1831 we find that Perry paid $1,421 for pens from Mason; and as the people of England gradually became convinced of its value, the steel pen rapidly took the place of the old-fashioned quill.
But just as it had been predicted that if railway traveling became general horses would be valueless and cows frightened to death, so it was suggested that geese would now go begging, and the iron trade be upset, if Britannia wrote with steel pens instead of with feathers. The note of alarm could hardly have been sounded in any serious earnest, but an amusing article appeared in the Edinburgh Review in 1833, called “Web-footed Interests.” Ganders, geese, and goslings are supposed to send up a petition to Parliament imploring Government to forbid the use of steel pens lest their race should be utterly swept away as useless. Agriculture will no longer pay, pleaded these long-neeked petitioners, for what will be the use of growing grain if there are no geese to eat it ? penknife-makers will be ruined, for no one will want a knife if they no longer “mend” their pens. There will be no kettles to be had, nor saucepans, nor fire-irons, nor nails, nor tools, for all the iron will be made into steel, all the steel into pens; and then when all the iron has been used up, literature will be impossible, all the iron-mines being empty and all the geese being dead! A melancholy picture, to be sure; but it does not appear that we are any nearer to such a disastrous state of things at present.
But the oddest thing about the use of quill pens is, not that people should have been unwilling to discard them, but that they did not give them up at the very first opportunity. They were soft and pleasant to write with, to be sure, but as soon as you got accustomed to a pen; and felt that it was a friend who understood you and tried to please, it would suddenly become a helpless cripple, either sputtering and scratching till your writing was hardly legible, or refusing to make any mark whatever, or suddenly discharging all the ink in its possession in a fat globular blot on the spotless page. And then to “mend” a pen was quite an art, and even to the skilful a matter of patience. The work of the unskillful was a hopeless failure; and there were so many ways of “mending” a pen badly, that it was possible to produce a great variety of pens and not one fit to write. Hood, an amusing writer of that day, describes the work of inexperienced hands: -
”What horrid, awkward, bungling tools of trade
Appeared the writing instruments, home-made:
What pens were sliced, hewed, hacked, and haggled out,
Slit or unslit, with many a various snout -
Aquiline, Roman, crooked, square and stubby,
Humpy and snubby.
To try in any common inkstand then.
With all their miscellaneous stocks,
To find a decent pen,
Was like a dip into a lucky box:
You drew and got one very curly,
And split like endive in some hurly-burly;
The next unslit, a square at end, a spade;
The third a pop-gun, not yet made;
The fourth a broom; the fifth of no avail,
Turned upward like a rabbit’s tail.”
Even to this day quills, of course, are still used, especially in Government offices; but as an every-day article of universal use they went steadily out of favour after the introduction of Mason’s pens. By the year 1835, the steel pen had won its way, and was more commonly met with than its predecessor; and from that time it has steadily established itself by dozens in every household, ruling with such lordly sway that it has altered, in some measure, the hand writing of those who use it, and requires paper made to suit its taste – that kind of writing-paper being most in demand over which the shining steel pen will glide most readily and smoothly.”