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William Purvis

Although the vast majority of important African American inventors dedicate their lives to perfecting one highly specialized idea, but this is not true of William Purvis. This creative genius, who holds multiple patents for objects as diverse as bag fasteners and railroad equipment, is most famous for a key improvement to the fountain pen. Regardless of which invention you choose to explore, the fact is that he was a truly gifted man who has changed the lives of t average person in ways that we often take for granted. For the purpose of this article though, the focus will be on Purvis’s improvements to the fountain pen.

The ability to make ones mark and record information by writing is central to the development of human kind. In the past, writing with a quill and ink was effective enough, as the majority of people were illiterate, and were not really called upon to write. However, as literacy spread and people developed, it was clear that carrying around your own ink well and quill was both messy and impractical. The initial solution was the fountain pen, which featured an ink well contained within a cylinder. The nib closely resembled a quill, and when pressure was applied to the pen, ink would run down, allowing writing. The main problem with the initial design was that it was both messy – ink would run everywhere if the pressure was not quite right – and expensive to produce.

Purvis changed all of that. His aim was to eliminate the spillage associated with existing fountain pen technology, and make the components affordable, so that the average person on the street could carry the pen with him. He succeeded on both fronts. The key to the design was a small elastic between ink and nib that basically created a vacuum that severely reduced spillage. This is simple and elegant, and that is why Purvis received the amount of recognition that he has.