July/August 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 4
© NEDJEIJKO MATURA
The Waterman Ideal fountain pen on the opposite page predates both the airplane and the Model T, and it delivered a far smoother ride. The silver filigree design on this No. 412 adorned a well-balanced barrel and an efficient ink-feed system joined to a responsive solid-gold nib. The owner could write for long periods with a relaxed hand, while the flexible nib produced a line of varying width that reflected his or her personality. Over time the wear pattern of the pen’s tip would adapt to the writer’s musculature and posture. The luxurious feel of writing with the Ideal Waterman is not easily duplicated even by pens made a century later.
Lewis E. Waterman was not a visionary among inventors. He was just a man with a problem. As an insurance salesman he needed to carry a reliable writing instrument so his customers could sign contracts. But a dip pen required a bulky protective case as well as an ink bottle with its ominous spill potential, and the newfangled reservoir pen that carried its ink supply in the barrel had a tendency to gurgle puddles onto the paper. Neither was satisfactory.
In solving his problem, Waterman became a model of the American entrepreneur. He shrewdly recognized the advantages of a built-in supply of ink, and enlarging on existing technology, he concentrated on eliminating the puddles.
The difficulty, Waterman realized, was pressure. As the ink flowed onto the paper, the diminishing volume in the reservoir chamber created a vacuum. At some point the pen inevitably tipped at just the right angle, air rushed into the chamber, and ink gushed out. Waterman invented and patented a set of very thin grooves in the channel leading to the reservoir. Capillary action brought ink to the nib, and the grooves allowed air to enter the reservoir as needed. The system worked. For the first time it became practical to carry around in a pocket a slim, reliable, affordable, and graceful writing instrument—the Ideal fountain pen.
The business of selling Waterman’s Ideal did not begin in the legendary garage but in a back room on Fulton Street in New York City. Local jobbers provided the parts, but Waterman personally assembled the pens on a kitchen table. In 1884, his second year of operation, he produced about five hundred. He then set out to make his Ideal everyone else’s as well.
He succeeded, partly by keeping in mind that people like a little style with their efficiency. Dip pens, which had been around for about four thousand years, had achieved a high degree of decorative sophistication along with their ability to produce an attractive script. Waterman retained both attributes. He continued to refine the gold nibs with innovations of his own, and he offered affordable elegance, first by chasing intricate designs on the originally plain hard rubber barrels and later by adding gold bands. Eventually his company began producing jewelry-class models with gold and silver overlays, some studded with gems.
In the true spirit of the entrepreneur, Waterman was his own best salesman. Early on he recognized the value of advertising and displayed his “New, Improved” and “Dip No More” messages on trade cards and in magazines. He secured and published endorsements from prominent people like Oliver Wendell Holmes. He printed catalogues and sent follow-up letters to buyers asking about their level of satisfaction, and he backed all his efforts with a five-year 100 percent refund guarantee.
His phenomenal success in America led to branches in Europe, and in 1900 a Waterman pen—technologically innovative, elegantly designed, and aggressively marketed—won the Medal of Excellence at the Paris World Exposition. By the time Waterman died a year later, his pens were selling at the rate of one thousand per day.
For the first few decades of this century, Waterman pens remained popular. American soldiers used Watermans to write letters from the trenches during World War I, and the British prime minister David Lloyd George used one to sign the Treaty of Versailles. Charles Lindbergh owned one. However, when the Depression came, few people could afford the luxury of a fountain pen. By the time they had money to spend again, after World War II, the new ball points had caught their fancy.
But now, after several decades of ball-point uniformity, many people have rediscovered the pleasure of using a fountain pen. The model shown here, which sold for less than ten dollars in the last years of the nineteenth century, might cost as much as two thousand dollars today. That’s more than the price of most modern versions, and using it as a writing instrument, though pleasurable, would diminish its antiquarian value. For most of us, contemporary fountain pens offer a good combination of practicality and sensual appeal. But for the true connoisseur, Waterman’s original creations, with their more flexible nibs, offer unequaled elegance and remain Ideal.