How Does a Fountain Pen Work? A Look Under the Hood

The fountain pen has a storied past. For centuries, rulers, inventors and visionaries searched for a pen that would hold a supply of ink and allow for a consistent, even flow of ink onto the page. Prior to the arrival of the fountain pen, the only writing options were quill and dip pens that had to be continually dipped into an inkwell. The result was often inconsistent ink on the page, as well as ink spilled onto the writer, the page and the writing desk.

The earliest known effort to create a pen with an ink reservoir was in northwest Africa in 973 A.D. The caliph of the Maghreb region requested a pen that would keep his hands clean while he wrote and would not leave a mess. The result was a pen that held ink inside and could be held upside-down without spilling, although no record of how the pen operated or what it looked like survives today. 

During the Renaissance, artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci is believed to have designed and constructed a working fountain pen. His journals contain drawings with cross-sections of what appears to be a reservoir pen. Careful study of his surviving journals shows his handwriting is consistent throughout, rather than the typical fading pattern of a quill pen from the time. While no physical example survives today – some historians challenge whether he actually completed his task – several working models were reconstructed in 2011 by artist Amerigo Bombara that have since been put on display in museums dedicated to Leonardo.

Other early records of fountain pens also exist. For example, 17th century German inventor Daniel Schwenter invented a pen made from two quills. (Link: One quill was placed inside the other; it held the ink and was closed with a cork. In 1663, Samuel Pepys, English naval administrator, mentioned in his writings a metal pen "to carry ink." Maryland historian Hester Dorsey Richardson also wrote about fountain pens that existed in the 17th century.

Perhaps the best-known early reference to a fountain pen comes from Nicholas Bion, whose illustrated description of a “plume sans fin” (an “endless pen”) was published in 1709. The earliest version of the pen described by Bion is traced to 1702.

Throughout the 1700s, 1800s and 1900s, advancements continued to improve the fountain pen, including self-filling pens, cartridge pens and “safety” pens designed to eliminate leakage.

With all the many advances in pen technology that have taken place over the years, there are many aspects of how the modern fountain pen operates that are still a mystery to both the casual user and the aficionado alike. Let’s unravel the mystery of the workings of the modern fountain pen.

A Look Under the Hood

Today, we are fortunate to have beautiful, high-quality fountain pens that provide a luxurious, elegant writing experience. The ink flows safely and smoothly from inside the pen to the paper, allowing us to capture our most important thoughts and ideas. Today’s ink is long-lasting, flows smoothly and dries quickly, allowing our ideas to be captured quickly and easily.

But how does this seemingly magical device actually work? Let’s look at the main components that put ink to paper:

- Nib: The nib is a vital element in the handwriting experience. The nib is the metal writing point that presses onto the page, creating a delicate flow of handwritten ink.

- Reservoir: located inside the body of the fountain pen, this is the area where ink is stored.

- Cartridge: a replaceable container of ink that allows for the convenient refilling of ink within the fountain pen.

- Feed: The feed allows the ink to flow from the reservoir or cartridge to the nib.

How does the ink flow through the fountain pen?

As you let the pen gently curve across the page, the fountain pen leaves a smooth, fine edge of ink on the paper. To reach the page, the ink flows through a fountain pen’s feed, travels down to the nib, and onto the paper by a combination of gravity and capillary action. As the fountain pen is pointed downward to the paper, gravity gently pulls the ink toward the page.

The other force at work is capillary action. That’s the same process that plants use to absorb water, where liquids move along the surface of a solid material because the liquid molecules are attracted to the solid. You’ve no doubt seen capillary action up close when using a paper towel to soak up spilled water, for example: ( These two main actions allow for a smooth, gentle flow of ink onto the page.

How is the fountain pen refilled?

Early versions of the fountain pen employed techniques such as an eyedropper or syringe to refill the reservoir. Other ways included using an internal filling mechanism that would create suction, similar to a small, hand-cranked pump. Unfortunately, these approaches often resulted in spilled ink and stained hands.

While many of these techniques are still in use today, most premium pens, including Zenzoi fountain pens, use high-quality, pre-filled replacement ink cartridges. These cartridges are not only extremely reliable, they also eliminate the possibility of spillage when trying to transfer ink from a container to the pen.

Zenzoi replacement ink cartridges provide high-quality ink, international-size cartridges to fit with virtually any fountain pen, non-toxic ink to ensure safe use, and 24-pack refill packages to provide enough ink for weeks’ or months’ worth of writing pleasure.

For thousands of years, people have searched for a fountain pen that would offer an excellent writing experience. Zenzoi fountain pens are the culmination of that search. Our pens are made from the highest quality components manufactured with world-class precision and attention to detail. We are proud to continue the time-honored tradition of the fountain pen.