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How pens work?

Ever wondered how your pen works? From the ancient bamboo pens made by the Romans, to the modern fountain pen, to the gel pens, the mechanism of the pen is indeed interesting.

Take a closer look at your pen, and see what makes your pen write.

Fountain Pens
The most important writing instrument in history, the Fountain Pen was invented after a thousand years of the Quill.

The mechanism of the Fountain Pen is composed of three main parts.


The Nib - which comes into contact with the paper.


The Feed - or the black part under the nib, which controls the ink flow from the reservoir to the nib.


The Round Barrel, which holds the nib and feed on the writing end and also holds the ink reservoir.

The Nib - The nib of the fountain pen is usually made of stainless steel or gold. It usually has one slit cut down its centre, to convey the ink down the nib by capillary action. The nib also has a "breather hole" to promote the exchange of air for ink in the pen reservoir. Various types of nibs have also been used to facilitate various types and styles of writing. For example, there are specialized nibs for calligraphy and musical notes, besides the famous "flexible nibs" which were popular during the early 20th Century.

Filling Mechanism - The process of filling the fountain pen was a messy process during the early days of its invention. Ink was most often fed into the reservoir using an eyedropper. Modern day fountain pens are equipped with a replaceable ink cartridge or with an internal mechanism, which creates suction to draw ink from a bottle. The ink is thus drawn from the bottle, through the nib and stored in the reservoir. While the older pens squeezed and released an internal rubber sack to create the suction needed, most modern pens today use a removable internal converter, comprising a screw or piston mechanism to create suction.


Ballpoint Pens
The ballpoint pen is one of the cheapest pens available today, but was a revolution in itself, when it was first invented by the Biro brothers in 1938. Faced with leaking fountain pens that were common during that time, Laszlo Biro, a Hungarian Journalist chanced upon the idea of using the thick ink used for printing, in a pen. Since the nib of the fountain pen was not suitable for this thicker ink, Laszlo got to work along with his brother Georg, a Chemist. Together they developed a new tip consisting of a ball that was free to turn in a socket, as it would pick up ink from a cartridge and then roll to deposit on the paper. The ball at the tip also served as a cap to keep the ink from drying, besides controlling the flow of the ink.

Mechanism of the Ballpoint Pen
The ballpoint pen uses a small rotating ball made of brass, steel or tungsten carbide to disperse ink. The early ball pens were notorious for leaking, however the changes to the composition of the ink have made leaking ballpoint pens a thing of the past. Modern ink is generally more viscous and contains additives, which cause it to thin out under pressure. As the pen is pushed against paper, the ball causes the ink pressure to rise slightly, and thus thin out. When the pen is lifted, the pressure drops and the ink thickens again.

Ballpoint pens usually come in blue, black, red and green colours. Blue is the most popular colour, closely followed by black.

The major developments in ballpoint pens has been:

The four-colour pens introduced by Bic during the 1970s were very popular. These pens had refills in black, blue, red and green, which were switchable at will.

Rollerball pens: A combination of the ballpoint design with the use of liquid ink and flow systems from fountain pens.

Space Pens: These pens combine a more viscous ink with a gas pressurized piston, which forces the ink towards the point. This design allows the pen to write upside down and in zero gravity environment.

Gel Pens
Gel ink pens are very popular today because of their smooth writing properties. The gel ink is a fusion of the best properties of ballpoint ink and water based ink. The gel ink pen combines the elements of both ball point pens and roller pens, thereby providing smoother writing. The small silica ball on the tip ensures a spontaneous flow of ink.

The first gel pens were marketed by the Sakura Colour Products Corporation of Osaka, Japan in 1984. Sakura also developed the first water-based gel inks, in an attempt to match the free-flowing ink in fountain pens. Gel ink pens soon became immensely popular among artists, architects and even children, as it combined the control of a ballpoint pen along with the brilliant colours of a marker. The bright inks used in gel pens are often augmented with aluminium sparkles to create a luminous effect.

Gel ink pens do have a few drawbacks. The ink could dry quickly if left uncapped, and the mechanism that draws ink to the tip is prone to damage if not handled carefully. Gel pens write better on certain types of paper, and they do not write on greasy surface. 

Marker Pens
The marker pen usually has its own source of ink. The tip is usually made of a porous material - usually felt - and is therefore called a felt-tipped pen. Markers are of two types - temporary markers and permanent markers.

Temporary markers come in bright vibrant colours and they contain erasable ink, which adheres to the writing surface without binding or being absorbed. Easy to clean, these non-permanent markers are popular among children, and are also used in overhead projectors and whiteboards.

Permanent markers use indelible ink that cannot be erased. Most permanent markers can write on all types of surfaces including glass, and are used for labelling.

Security markers contain a fluorescent yet invisible ink, and are used to counter burglary. The markings made by a "Security Marker" is visible only under an ultraviolet light.

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