productivity :: balance :: freelancing :: notebooking
My grandfather’s fountain pen

My grandfather’s fountain pen

I have this fountain pen, matching pencil and lab notebook that belonged to my grandfather.

In my childhood he always was a magical font of office supplies — although they were antiquated ones, even then. He never had things that were like the school supplies I got at Caldor (a 70s New England store akin to Kmart) – see-through plastic rulers and fresh pink erasers, plastic ballpoint pens and yellow pencils. His supplies were always odd and far more special than mine — probably they seemed so peculiar because they were purchased in the 50s and 60s, but to me that was all a mystery.

He had a cup holder on his desk (a crazy, many-sectioned behemoth that he made himself, to suit himself) that always contained a bunch of red china crayons with the paper wrapping, thick pencils and assorted color pens. He had a very frustrating metal “magic marker” that needed ink to be poured into it and made a mess everywhere and smelled strongly. (That’s what early markers were like.)

In his main desk drawer there were a multitude of little compartments divided by wooden walls, each housing a new treasure: paper clips, elastic bands, the little glassine hinges stamp collectors use, strange odds and ends. He had a metal cabinet, too, with about 50 little drawers in it. It never got old, looking into each drawer. The contained things like envelopes or instruction booklets, strange small contraptions or cards — for us to play animal snap!

He had a vast store, both at his desk and in in his basement, of paper. He was a fastidious person, and everything was organized beyond criticism, but he did rather hoard things like office supplies (not that I take after him or anything!). He would give me old sheets of paper from the company he used to run, to draw on and use spirograph on. It was always a bit yellow and sometimes terribly brittle — even 40 years ago, when it was probably only 20 years out of date. Spirograph, with the rickety colored ballpoints of the 70s always tore the paper, but it was still fun. He’d give me 3-ring binders to use for school that were, again, old and faded. But I didn’t mind. This was when I was younger before Trapper Keepers and keeping up with the schoolmate Joneses came into play. I decorated them with paint and markers and stickers and used them to store the minutes from the secret club I had with my best friend.

The notebook

Somewhere along the line, he gave me a huge empty lab notebook. I have no idea how old it is, since they still make similar ones, but the paper is very yellowed and has that old smell. And it did when he gave it to me. My grandfather went to MIT in the late 20s. He worked as a chemist until the early 70s. It could be from anywhere in that timeframe.

I’ve used a piece of paper from it here and there over the years, for collages and artsy whatnots. I just pulled it out again though, and realized how it’s like the work notebooks I keep now (and have for 20 years). The pages are numbered, There’s an index section at the front. There’s a grid. Of course, this is in the service of science — I believe the numbered pages are to prove you’ve not ripped things out and influenced your results by not fully showing your work. And the grid, of course, for calculations and diagrams and the like.

This notebook has two sheets for each number. One with a green grid, and one with red. I’m sure you were meant to leaf a sheet of carbon paper between them when you wrote your notes. The green sheets are perforated, so you could tear out one copy. It’s funny the two kinds of pages have aged differently — although both have a quality just up from newsprint, the red-lined pages have yellowed considerably more than the green ones. (And I’m sure if were a chemist, I could tell you why.)


The pen

At some point I also became the owner of his monogrammed fountain pen and pencil. I’m not sure if this was when he was still alive, but was suffering with the arthritic hands and failing eyesight that kept him from his favorite meticulous hobbies, or if it was after he died. But they’ve lived with me for some time. I’ve always admired them as aesthetic objects, and have kept them in a china sugar pot with my other fountain pens, but I’ve never written with the pen much, assuming it wouldn’t work after all these years.

Lately though, I questioned that assumption. I cleaned it up with some water and filled it with some high quality black ink. And presto, it writes like a dream. I wondered about this pen, so I did some research.

It’s a Sheaffer Triumph 1250 with a vacuum-fill mechanism and a 14k two-tone nib that comes with a lifetime guarantee. It was designed and produced during World War II. The nib is innovative in that it’s more conical and far more rigid than earlier pens. This makes it a lot tougher, and a lot more likely to write on questionable paper (like the yellowing newsprint of the lab notebook, on which it performs wonderfully). The tip of the nib is turned up slightly to allow for writing with force to go through carbon paper without piercing the top sheet. The advertisements from the 40s claim it can be used upside-down for a finer line — and sure enough, that actually works.


The vac-fil mechanism became more popular at this time because wartime shortages made the parts for lever-fillers harder to come by. Apparently, there’s some clever sort of balloon/sac device in there that makes the magic happen, but all I can say is that it fills easily and well.


I saw an exhibit at the MIT Museum not too long ago that featured some of Harold “Doc” Edgerton’s lab notebooks and although he wasn’t in the same field as my grandfather, they were at MIT at the same time. And his notebooks looked the same! I’m sure my grandfather had many, now long gone, filled with science-y notes in his diminutive hand. I wish I had those to read now.

At any rate, I won’t wax more rhapsodic than I already have, but I wanted to share how I’m grateful to have this pen, and the other things, and how it really brings me a great deal of joy that I can still write with it and that it’s such a workhorse. Eventually I’ll find the right metal cleaner and shine up the band around the cap where my grandfather’s initials are engraved. Although he’s been gone for a long while now, the more I learn about history and look again at the few things of his I have, the more I appreciate him and realize how much I inherited from him of a completely intangible nature.

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