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TG History — The Fountain Pen

| Aug 30, 2010
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Michelle Moore brings you TG History“Ability is the art of getting credit for all the home runs somebody else hits.” Casey Stengel

Not to seem nitpicky or anything but often what we learn in History Class is not technically correct, particularly on the matter of inventions. For the sake of convenience we’re taught that so-and-so invented the zipper or the steamboat or the electric toothbrush. Actually, many inventions were already around for some time before somebody came along and improved on them. Take the light bulb. Sure, we were all taught that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. Except he didn’t — not exactly. The light bulb was around for some time, but Edison (with a lot of help from his overworked staff) improved the filament and the vacuum to the point where he produced the first commercially viable light bulb. True, an English physicist named Sir Joseph Wilson Swan invented a workable incandescent bulb a year earlier than Edison. And true, Edison bitterly opposed the use of alternating current, without which electric lighting would be impossible today. But all that is just too confusing to sort out — it’s so much simpler just to say “Thomas Edison invented the light bulb.”

But sometimes an inventor will improve something and not even get credit for it. You’ve probably heard accounts where some poor inventor sold his design to someone else, who then marketed it and went on to reap fame and fortune while the original inventor was quickly forgotten. Which brings us to the fountain pen.

It’s hard to imagine life before the fountain pen. Can you picture yourself trying to write something by constantly dipping a quill or some such into an inkwell? (And you think bank lines are long now.) Evelyn Andros de la Rue, born in 1879 to an industrial family, was an enthusiastic proponent of the fountain pen. He took out no less than 17 different patents and by 1905 had developed his own self-filling pen. Unfortunately — like the early light bulb — these were cumbersome, impractical designs. Evelyn’s most advanced design was also a clumsy instrument that required the user to pump vigorously several times on the piston while twisting the rod twice to engage and disengage the piston. Needless to say the public was not exactly lining up in the snow to buy it.

onoto
The Onoto

However, about the same time an inventor named George Sweetser was independently developing his own much-improved model. Sweetser arranged a demonstration with de la Rue, showing that on his model the plunger mechanism filled itself on the downward stroke. No more fussing and pumping vigorously. Evelyn, extremely impressed, bought the design from Sweetser for a generous sum and then convinced his influential father, Sir Thomas, to begin a massive advertising campaign promoting it.

Well to make a long story short, the new fountain pen was dubbed the Onoto and sold slowly at first particularly in America. But with an advertising campaign sales in England sales took off and soon the Onoto became “The Pen.” Other styles were later created and all dominated the marketplace until the 1920s when modernized versions of the same system were introduced. Sweetser’s fountain pen design is still in use today. But of course, he didn’t receive the credit or reap the profits from it — Evelyn Andros de la Rue did.

Sweetser 1
Sweetser

But at least George Sweetser had his other career to fall back on. You see, Sweetser, a lifelong transvestite, was also a famous female impersonator on the vaudeville circuit. You’d like to think Sweetser’s generous settlement check kept him in sequins and bugle beads for a long time after that.

Bibliography

The Onotoist Newsletter May 2010

The House That Thomas Built — The Story of De La Rue, Lorna Houseman, 1968

The History of The Onoto Pen, Peter Twydle


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