The First Italic Pen

By Geo. W. Hughes
Date Added: 17/07/2009


One morning in the early thirties I foW1d on my desk a letter from an address at Croydon with an S.O.S. from a Mr. Alfred Fairbank. Now it happened that, during World War I, I had a colleague whose handwriting I greatly admired; he told me it was half-W1cials and was a mediaeval form. I had not then even so much as looked at old scripts and in my ignorance jumped to the conclusion that something to do with half-uncials was in the wind, so that I felt quite enthusiastic about the letter. Moreover, although old scripts were outside my ken, I found it quite a fascinating thing to construct or select pens for varied forms of writing - once, when in Calcutta, I even ran across a visiting Tibetan and seized the opportunity to design a pen for him. As a boy, at the time when a science of metallurgy was still very young, one of the first books I put on my shelf had been "Mixed Metals," by Hiorns; it was followed by others; and later on I bought two heavy French treatises, one about surface tension and capillarity, the other really applicable to the behaviour of metals in structures, but which I had to re-apply as best I could from the large and regular forms of structures to the small and irregular formation of pens.

It was clear that the writing (of which I had doubts) was directional writing, that is to say, as subsequently deemed in the very first issue of the BULLETIN, writing in which the variation in thickness of the strokes is made by the direction in which the pen is drawn and not by pressure. So far so good; but it was also clear from the examples of Cancellaresca I had been shown that it was purely directional and that application of any pressure at the wrong point vitiated the hand.

Now Saudek was just a name to me, but I had read various articles by those who deduced character from handwriting which stressed the individual rhythm of writing pressures, and it seemed to me to be one thing for a calligrapher such as Mr. Fairbank himself to suppress his natural inclinations and quite another to get the general public to do so. If it could not be suppressed the resultant of pressure must be minimised, and that demanded a fairly stiff nib and one in which the slit opened as little as possible when pressure was in fact applied.

That, in its turn, posed another problem; for it is the slit of a pen which regulates the flow of ink to the point and the problem was not made any easier of solution by the additional requirement that the point was required to be quite flat across, which deprives it of the reserve of ink given by the capillarity of a curved surface. Moreover, such flatness could not be attained by a similar device to that used in our "Ajusto" and "Football" series of pens, namely a flat channel, for the thin strokes would not be thin enough to suit Cancellaresca, and it must be borne in mind that the incurved interior of such a channel provides in itself a tiny ink-reservoir.

All in all, it was quite a problem, but it was one that had to be solved, and in this I have since been confirmed by looking into the rise and decline of Cancellaresca itself; when it was in the hands of experts it flourished, as it came into the hands of all and sundry it succumbed to these unwanted pressures; it deteriorated and faded out of use. Even the uninhibited writing of some of the old experts as revealed by the articles of the late Mr. James Wardrop in SIGNATURE shows a similar deterioration.

To return to the making, steel would be unsuitable both as having too high a tensile strength, and because for reasons, which it will be more convenient to explain later, the straightness of the edge would be impossible of control; ordinary metal with a flat point subject to pressure would dub up. It needed something in between. Fortunately, I had recently made an alloy of (for metal) high tensility and which, by dint of rolling down to an extreme reduction in some rolls I had, I made stiffer still, while retaining good resiliency.

So I instructed the toolmakers to make the requisite tools; the precise positioning of the flat was, and is, most critical and more than one set of tools had to be rejected; the curvature of the rest of the pen, the length of the slit and the optimum thickness of the metal had to be found by experiment and first one pen and then another and another submitted to Mr. Fairbank and tested out by him in writing.

So much for the first Flight Commander, which was the broad point. But when he had approved that one, Mr. Fairbank wanted in addition finer-pointed varieties. I agreed fully with him: for tastes in the size of writing differ very widely, but I could see that there was another headache in store, which I will proceed to explain.

When you cut or shear anything, the resultant edge has always a certain amount of roughness and, in the case of pen nibs, this is rectified by a process of mass polishing which smoothes over the extreme edge, and, even more important, the spot where the slit meets the edge. But one can't in this process, which we call "shaking," smooth one place without smoothing another and inevitably the comers are rounded off as well; indeed, if the "shaking" process be continued long enough, one is left with a round edge all the way along instead of the straight one that this writing demands; that is precisely one of the reasons why steel could not be used; for, in the case of steel, the "shaking" process has to be further extended to remove the scale that develops in the hardening. It will be readily understood that, with a given pen, the extent of this rounding of the comers is constant, irrespective of the width of the point, and thus the percentage taken up by the rounded portion becomes greater as the point-width is lessened.

After trial and error I overcame this by incorporating minute lugs at each comer; these lugs or projections, culminating as they do at an acute angle, both attract the polishing preferentially and, as they round off, do so on a curve inclining tangentially to the rearward instead of to the front edge of the pen. Finding them beneficial, I incorporated them in the broad point also. It was unpopular with the toolmakers and had to be forced through, as blanking tools with these projections are difficult to make and need constant maintenance, also, if the lugs do go wrong, it causes subsequent trouble in other processes.

That, in outline, is how the first Italic pen came into being.