A Fountain of Genius: The Romanian Who Invented the Pen

Have you ever wondered to whom you owe the fact that you can write every day with that tool that you call a pen? The answer might just surprise you.

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woman laying on bed with fountain pen in hand
Actress Ava Gardner (1922 - 1990) writing a letter with a fountain pen - created by Romanian inventor Petrache Poenaru. Photo: Clarence Sinclair Bull / Getty Images

Petrache Poenaru, a name as valuable as it is unknown. The embodiment of the Age of Enlightenment, he was a mathematician, physicist, engineer, and teacher. He was also a politician, agronomist, and zoologist, founder of Bucharest’s Philharmonic Society, Botanical Gardens, and National Museum of Antiquities. If that weren’t enough, his revolutionary invention, the fountain pen, is still in use to this day.

Petrache Poenaru and the Wallachian Uprising

Some may have heard of Poenaru in a political context. He was the personal assistant to Tudor Vladimirescu, leader of the Wallachian Uprising in 1821, an event that would mark the beginning of a national rebirth later to become Romania. During Poenaru’s first skirmish, it quickly became apparent that he possessed no viable fighting skills. His compatriots then brought him in front of Vladimirescu for punishment. However, impressed by his intelligence, the leader decided to put Poenaru in a more relevant post. One that mainly involved letters and ink.

Perhaps this experience provided inspiration for the invention that would influence the lives of so many people in the future. In any case, after the defeat of Tudor Vladimirescu, Poenaru, who had been on a diplomatic mission at the time, managed to escape, which set him on his history-making path. He managed to obtain scholarships in Vienna and then in Paris, where his fortuitous invention was born.

The story goes that during his studies in Paris, he was so obsessed with studying and taking notes he desperately longed for a more efficient writing tool. Writing at the time involved a quill (a molted flight feather from a large bird), or a metal-nibbed pen dipped into a pot of ink. Needless to say, this method was messy, inconvenient – and not particularly conducive to quickly scribbling notes. Thus, Poenaru set to work creating an alternative.

Writing the course of history

He started by turning a hollowed-out swan feather into an ink reservoir, which would then flow directly to the pen’s tip, eliminating the need for a messy inkpot. Besides the convenience of having an all-in-one instrument, it also significantly increased the speed at which one could write as it eliminated the need to pause and re-wet the quill with ink. On 25 May 1827, he finally achieved his goal as the Manufacture Department of the French Ministry of the Interior registered the invention as a “never-ending portable pen, which recharges itself with ink.”

Although many would later attribute the invention of the fountain pen to American inventor Lewis Edson Waterman, Poenaru is the decisive winner in this battle. In fact, Edson wasn’t even born until nearly a decade after Poenaru’s pen was patented. Even though the invention was not mass-produced, he was the first person to literally write history.

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Stamps_of_Romania with the inventor. Photo: Wikipedia.org

With the lasting legacy of his invention, Poenaru’s place in history was secured. However, everybody needs a reminder of greatness every once in a while. To that end, the Romanian Postal Service (Poșta Română) paid homage to his invention in 2010 by issuing a five lei stamp depicting Poenaru next to his fountain pen project. That’s definitely something to write home about.

Ioana Marandici

Student in the “Diplomacy and International Negotiations” Master’s program at the National University of Political and Administrative Studies. Passionate about the interactions between different cultures, travelling, international relations and how my own national culture fits in this complex mechanism.

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