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The Anatomy of a nib


How can we talk about iridium?

from the fountain pen of  John Mottishaw

pumice.GIF (57118 bytes)

The pumice stone texture on this ca. 1918 Sheaffer's broken tip is probably the result of corrosion. This nib would not have written as smoothly as most made today. 120x enlargement.

My technical accomplice, Kurt Montgomery and I have laid to rest the idea that fountain pens are tipped with iridium. No nib manufacturer that we have found is using iridium for the tipping of fountain pens anymore. And in fact, they have not been doing so for decades. But as I disabuse myself of the idea that these things are made of iridium, a new problem arises. What will we call this stuff? It is always easy to have a simple name for a part of something; and iridium, named for the rainbow, has enough of a mystique around it to be an attractive choice. But, iridium also is the name of an element, like oxygen and iron. It is distinct in its meaning just the way that oxygen is distinct from air, and iron is distinct from steel. These may seem like trivial differences to the untechnical mind; but western civilization, through its technology, rides on these sorts of distinctions.

Iridium with its melting point of 2,410° C, is one of several metals in the platinum group that share the qualities of extreme hardness and corrosion resistance. The others are osmium, ruthenium, rhenium, and rhodium. Because iridium is very scarce it is also very expensive.

The most recent tipping that we could find with iridium in the alloy was in a 1952 Parker 51 nib (2.6%). The 1956 tip that we sampled had no iridium, but was comprised of 100% ruthenium. The 1957 tip was made of 56% ruthenium and 44% rhodium. No nibs that we sampled had any iridium content after that point. (We looked at current Montblancs, Parkers, Sheaffers, and even an inexpensive nib, made in India that was stamped "iridium". (See electron microscope photograph) None of them contains iridium.

I can only conclude that the word has undergone a transformation in the same way that xerox has become a copy, and a fridge is a place to keep food cool and, therefore, something other than a brand name.

I do not believe there is a conspiracy among pen makers to foster ignorance, but rather a linguistic impediment that none considered worth while to overcome. If most pen sellers talk about their pen being tipped with the best quality "iridium", who would want to say that theirs contains no iridium, but is composed primarily of ruthenium, tungsten and rhenium (as is the case with Montblanc). This is too complicated and does not share the cashé of being the material that came from outer space and traces the extinction of the dinosaurs. The ad men would hate it.

Are these alloys any better or worse than the iridium tips of the teens and twenties? After examining many of them under my microscope and a few under an electron microscope, I am convinced that the newer alloys are certainly more consistent, and probably of higher quality overall than the rough-and-ready material of past. (Please see the electron microscope picture of a broken tip from a #4 Sheaffer's self-filling, ca. 1918.) There are of course many notable exceptions of old nib tips made from native iridium, that write beautifully, if not miraculously, but I probably see more than my share of ones that are flawed for one reason or another.

Over the course of more than 100 years of nib making, manufacturers have slowly phased out iridium. Today, it does not seem to be in use at all. The only residue is the in the name.

When we compare current Sheaffer, Parker, and MontBlanc tipping materials, even though they are being used for the same job, they are all quite different. Based on the range of materials in use today and the varying composition of the tips, the search for perfection is still underway.

As for myself, I can no longer talk about putting new iridium on the tips of fountain pens. I am still searching for the best sounding phrase to replace the words, "tipped with iridium."

tip2.GIF (43653 bytes)

This nib is stamped "iridium" on the top surface. It is in current production and can be found in relatively inexpensive fountain pens. Kurt and I believe the tip is formed simply by melting back the body of the nib. Strong evidence for this speculation comes from analysis of the composition of the tipping. It is made of 400 series stainless steel. There is no iridium here, Not even a pellet of hard surface tipping.


© 1999 John Mottishaw No reproduction or distribution without permission. first published in The PENnant Vol. XIII, No. 3

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