William Purvis and Fountain Pens

Today I saw an ad for the UNCF that indicated that the fountain pen was invented by an African American, William Purvis. This struck me as wildly improbable, since fountain pens have been around considerably longer than there were non-native persons living on the North American continent, and certainly before there were persons of African descent here.

Another website made the same claim, giving a date in 1890 for the invention, but lacked any useful information to indicate what, exactly, Mr. Purvis invented. Strangely, Wikipedia doesn’t mention Mr. Purvis at all, and gives a date in 953 for the invention of the fountain pen, in Egypt. For the purposes of this claim, “fountain pen” is defined to be a device with an ink reservoir and some kind of gravity-fed ink delivery to a nib. And, further, there are surviving fountain pens from the 1700’s, which would make an 1890 invention date impossible.

As a huge fan of fountain pens, my curiosity was piqued, and I wanted to know what in fact he did invent and patent in 1890.

After a little more poking around, I found that Mr. Purvis invented improvements to existing technology, making a fountain pen that didn’t leak as much, and which was more affordable to most people, ushering in an era where everybody could own one. He also invented a number of other very cool things, including self-inking hand stamps, electric railway track switchers, and machines for making paper bags.

Edit: Here’s another great resource on the history of fountain pens.

All of this leaves me wondering why a respectable organization like the UNCF would make such a claim which is so trivially debunked. And yet, even as I write this, I know that folks will accuse me of being racist by even pointing out such a thing. If the goal here is to celebrate the accomplishments of African American inventors, there’s certainly no shortage of those without making any up.

Now, I’m certain that many of the inventions attributed to white men were in fact invented by someone of, shall we say, lower social class at the time of invention, either for reasons of race, nationality, or gender, and the white man in question took credit for them, because he knew that the actual inventor lacked the clout to do anything about it. I’ve heard this claim about Edison repeatedly. The controversy we know about is that of Nikola Tesla who was Serbian. But he was white, and so he got some little recognition at the time, and a lot more since his death.

But revisionist history doesn’t help anyone. We should celebrate William Purvis for what he did invent – which was some very cool stuff – without making up claims that he invented other things, which not only opens the claims up to debunking, but also undervalues the cool things he did accomplish.