Walter Sheaffer took a big risk when he started making his pens. Do you think he should have taken the chance? Do you think you could take a similar big risk?
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Iowan Writes His Way Into History

Inspecting pens at the Sheaffer Pen Company, 1956At one time people used a quill and ink to write. Then along came a remarkable new tool for writing—the fountain pen. The writing instrument consisted of a chamber to hold ink and a fine point at one end for the ink to flow through onto the paper. It took a steady hand and either an eye dropper or a coin pressed into a slot in the barrel to add ink to the chamber.

A Better Writing Instrument

People all over the world used the fountain pen, but it was the invention of a man from Fort Madison, Iowa, that made using the pen neater and easier.

While flipping through a newspaper one evening in 1907, Walter Sheaffer got an idea for a new kind of pen. Working in the back room of his Fort Madison jewelry store, he invented a lever mechanism that fit smoothly into the pen's barrel. A single stroke of this slim, metal lever filled the pen's internal reservoir with ink directly from the bottle. No more eyedroppers or coins!

Walter worked on a model of the first practical self-filling fountain pen, and on August 25, 1908, he obtained U.S. Patent No. 896,861 for his revolutionary design.

His instinct and experience as a salesman convinced Walter that he had a great idea. He assembled extra models of an improved design that he patented in 1912. Then he had friends try them out. They loved the pens—but advised him against going into the pen business.

A Big Risk

"Why take a chance on losing everything?" they cautioned. Walter was 45 years old and supported his family through a successful jewelry business. He'd have to risk his business and borrow money to compete with at least 58 companies already in the field. If his pen company failed, he'd lose everything.

In the spring of 1912 the jewelry store workshop became a pen factory. Seven employees, including Walter's son, Craig, crowded inside to fashion the first Sheaffer pens.

Walter's company fought life-and-death legal battles to protect his patents and product designs. The company survived the Great Depression and world wars. (Craig shifted manufacturing from pens to military supplies during World War II). When Walter died in 1946, his pens—manufactured in Iowa—were in the hands of people around the world.

New Writing Technologies Emerge

Control of Sheaffer Pen stayed in Fort Madison until the company was sold in 1966. Sales declined in the 1960s as writing technologies changed. Consumers turned to more affordable disposable pens over fountain pens. The Sheaffer company struggled financially while it continued producing top-of-the-line products but slowed in introducing new items.

In 2001 Bic Corporation owned the old Sheaffer Pen Company. New writing products were designed and developed. But in 2004 the French owned Bic Corporation announced it would close the historic Fort Madison plant in 2006.

Adapted from an article printed in The Goldfinch 20, No. 1. Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa.
© State Historical Society of Iowa



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