Although pens are commonplace today and come in a wide variety of colors and styles, pens that contain ready-to-use ink inside them have only existed for about 130 years. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, pens have gone through many changes to make them more convenient and less expensive to use.
In the early days of paper and ink, most writers in Europe and the United States used quills, or goose feathers with most of the fluff picked off and the tip sharpened, which they frequently dipped in inkwells. By the early 19th century, most writers had switched to steel pen points that could be attached to small rods but still had to be dipped in ink. A number of companies tried to develop self-contained pens, but most failed to control the flow of ink, resulting in blotches, skipped letters or leaks. Advancements in technology finally led to useful fountain pens in the late 19th century and to commercially available ballpoint pens following World War II.
The major types of pens include fountain, ballpoint, rollerball and dip pens. Dip pens, or those that have to be dipped in ink, are the earliest form of pens but are not often used today, except for art forms like calligraphy. Fountain pens were the only type of self-contained ink pen available through the late 19th and early 20th centuries but declined in popularity after the introduction of cheap, disposable ballpoint pens. However, fountain pens remain popular among writers who value quality, and as gifts.
Prior to the 1800s, writers used quills, reeds or stiff brushes as pens. In the early 1800s, steel pen points that could be dipped in inkwells became widely available. In the 1870s, Waterman developed a reliable fountain pen with self-contained ink. By the late 1800s and early 1900s, safety pens with improved designs to help prevent leaking appeared, as did crescent or sac filler pens. The Biro ballpoint pen was invented in the late 1930s, started selling commercially in the United States in 1945 and became popular during the 1950s after design improvements.
Fountain pens have used a number of methods for releasing and refilling the ink. Early fountain pens are sometimes called eyedropper pens, since they had to be refilled with ink using an eyedropper. The sac pens and piston or plunger filler pens that came afterward could be refilled by drawing ink directly from the inkwell, rather than with an eyedropper. Fountain pens with refillable glass cartridges appeared in the late nineteenth century, and the first disposable glass cartridges came out in the 1930s. Various types of cartridge and bottle-filled fountain pens remain in use today, while most ballpoint and rollerball pens are disposable and cannot be refilled with ink. Ballpoint pens use a tiny ball bearing to control the flow of ink, and rollerball pens use a similar system, except with water-based gel rather than an oil-based ink.
Throughout the heyday of fountain pens, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, major pen manufacturers such as Waterman, Sheaffer, Parker competed in developing more convenient pen designs and refilling systems, as well as in developing new styles that would appeal to customers. Although early fountain pens were made from hard rubber, manufacturers began using celluloid in the 1920s, allowing for a greater variety of colors and patterns. Manufacturers also began adding clips that allow the pens to attach to pockets, as well as decorative overlays and engraving.