Pen Friends Through the Years

It has been some years now since I used what we called a Fountain pen. All through my schooldays, from the time that we reached the class where we graduated from pencils to pens, the fountain pen was an essential part of our compass box. The pens had a number of accoutrements—ink bottles (think Quink!), plastic ink fillers, rags of cloth to mop up spills, and sometimes even extra nibs. The ritual of filling (and spilling) the ink was as much a part of the evening routine as packing the schoolbags. The fountain pen was an integral part of life, and being gifted a Parker pen or a Waterman pen by someone who came from abroad was a highlight of that life!

I was surprised to learn recently that until the late 1950s India did not manufacture pens; all pens were imported, as also was ink. It was only after Independence, due to the thrust by the government to encourage domestic production that Indian pen manufacturing companies were set up. By the mid-1960s there were 12 Indian manufacturers of which Ratnam and Sons, based in Rajamundry were the most famous. It is believed that the Ratnam pen was the first truly ‘swadeshi’ pen. The story goes that when Gandhi had just launched the Swadeshi movement, he met KV Ratnam in 1921, and advised him to make a product using solely Indian components. When Ratnam asked him what he should make Gandhi said that he could make anything, from a pin to a pen. And Ratnam chose the pen! After studying the intricacies of a fountain pen, Ratnam set about meeting Gandhi’s mandate to make a truly ‘Indian’ pen. After several years of experimenting with local materials and technology, he finally developed one in 1933 and sent it to Gandhiji. Gandhiji was not fully convinced. He sent one of his secretaries to the Ratnam factory to confirm that no imported element was used in the product. It was in 1935 that Gandhiji was satisfied, and he started using the Ratnam pen, which he continued to do till his death in 1948.

For years ink-stained fingertips were the sign of a prolific writer, or a leaky pen! It was to address the issue of leaking ink that in other parts of the world, the path to the invention of what came to be called the ballpoint pen were already underway. The international history of the transition from the fountain pen to the ball pen is interesting.

The first patent for this kind of pen was obtained by an American lawyer John J Loud in 1888. Loud wanted an ink pen which would be able to write on rougher materials such as wood and leather, as well as paper. He experimented with, and developed a pen with a revolving steel ball, which was held in place by a socket—literally a pen with a ball point. Loud’s pen was indeed able to write on leather and wood, but it was too rough for paper. The device was deemed to have no commercial value and the patent eventually lapsed. But inventors continued to experiment with variations on the ball point.

One of these was a Hungarian-Argentinian journalist named László Biro who was frustrated with the leaky pens that he had to use in large numbers. László had realised that the ink used in fountain pens was too slow to dry; what was needed was something more like the quick-drying ink used on newspapers. In his quest for a more suitable ink he turned to his brother, Győrgy, a dentist who was also a talented chemist. Győrgy came up with a viscous ink which spread easily but dried quickly. After a number of trials, the brothers filed a patent, in 1943, for the ballpoint pen. Their pen was originally called a ‘Birome’ but became popularly known as a biro (an example of an eponym!) The pen became an instant hit. The Biro brothers sold their patent to Bic. And Bic pens are known all over the world even today. The ballpoint pen revolutionized the act of writing. Where the fountain pen needed a fixed place for writing where the accompaniments like the inkpot could be kept, the ballpoint pen led to great mobility and flexibility; it could be carried and used anywhere and anytime..

By the time I graduated from school to college, the trend in India had also moved from fountain pens to what we then called ballpoint pens, that later became the ubiquitous ball pens. At the time relatives coming from abroad used to bring Bic pens as gifts, although Milton Reynolds an American entrepreneur had introduced ballpoint pens in India in 1947. While Rajamundari was the cradle of the indigenous fountain pen, it was in Rajkot in Gujarat that the first Indian ballpoint inks and pens were manufactured. It was only in 1962 that Dhirajlal Joshi, after a lot of struggle, got approval to make ballpoint pen ink in India. There were hiccups in terms of quality of ink, nibs etc. but by the 1970s these had been smoothened and many pen manufacturing partnerships were set up, including with countries like Japan and Germany.

From Ratnam pen to Space pen–I value them all!

In the last two decades the market has been flooded with a great variety of pens, transitioning from pens with refills, to use-and-throw gel pens. There is even a Space Pen that is able to write in zero gravity and works upside down, under water, over grease and in extreme temperatures. Today fountain pens have become collector’s items or status symbols. Ink fillers, ink bottles and ink stained rags may soon be seen only in museums. Even refills for ball point pens are not easily available at my local stationary shop, as I painfully steel myself to throw away gel pens when they run out. These are perhaps manifestations of a time, which is almost upon us, when pens themselves, in any form, become redundant in an age of digital technology.

I have, all my life, loved writing by hand, and pens have been an integral part of that process of writing; each transition in the type of pen that I have used, marking also a different phase in my life. Pens gifted with love, pens picked up as souvenirs, pens handed out at meetings and conferences, and pens chosen and bought from stationary shops, and more…I have kept them all. These are my valued pen friends even today.  

–Mamata

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