Theodor Kovàcs is a mysterious historical figure, particularly for someone who had such a profound impact upon the history of fountain pen development. There is surprisingly little written about him and his work outside of what Pelikan Schreibgeräte and its derivatives tell us. His birth, family, activities outside of Pelikan, and death are all questions that I have been unable to answer despite extensive research. Much of what we do know seems to be based upon a strong oral history as well as a scant trail of patents and corporate agreements. A great deal of this history, I have already put forth in my piece, Where It All Started: The Transparent Pelikan Fountain Pen so please forgive any redundancy. While I have previously dedicated time to the fruits of Mr. Kovàcs’ labor and partnership with Günther Wagner, I have never taken a deep dive into the engineering behind the differential piston mechanism that has become a defining characteristic of Pelikan’s 90+ year fountain pen legacy. Not just an incremental improvement, Mr. Kovàcs’ designs were evolutionary, taking the potential of these analogue instruments to the next level. I thought that it might be enlightening, particularly for the more engineering minded amongst us, to peek behind the curtain and see what makes a Pelikan tick, at least as it did back in the early days. The designs that follow are derived from the original patents filed by Mr. Kovàcs and Günther Wagner back in the 1920s which ultimately became the linchpin behind the company’s fountain pen fortunes. All the illustrations below have been annotated according to the patent’s text for ease of viewing. Of course, there have been some small improvements to the piston design over the past nine decades, but the fundamentals remain the same. Read on to learn how Pelikan’s differential piston filling mechanism got its start.
We know that Mr. Kovàcs was an engineer of Hungarian decent who served as an officer during World War I. Shortly after the hostilities ended, he sought his fortune by setting out to improve upon the prevailing fountain pen designs of the time. Safety pens dominated the post war period but were not without their shortcomings. Working out of 108 Lindenstrasse in Berlin, Germany, Theodor Kovàcs’ first patents would be filed at the patent office of the Reich in Berlin circa mid-1923. Looking to turn his intellectual property into income, he would come to license one of his patents to Edmund and Mavro Moster, of the Moster Penkala Werke AG company based in Zagreb, Croatia almost immediately after his initial filing. To his dismay, the full scale production of a pen based off that patent never materialized, likely a consequence of financial issues faced by the Moster company. Because of this association, it’s not inconceivable that some early prototypes may well have been made in the Moster Penkala factory workshop. The lack of production and subsequent sales had the effect of depriving Mr. Kovàcs of any royalty income. Unable to derive any meaningful revenue from his work, he sought to annul the contract, something that the Moster company at first refused. Litigation or at least the threat of such resulted in the Moster company agreeing to limit Mr. Kovacs’ contractual obligations to the regions of Yugoslavia, Greece, Romania, Asia Minor, Turkey, and Egypt. The altered agreement now allowed Mr. Kovàcs to search for another suitable business partner. He solicited the German manufacturers Günther Wagner, Montblanc, and Soennecken.
On August 19, 1927, Theodor Kovàcs would enter into a contract with Günther Wagner who won Mr. Kovàcs’ favor largely because they were willing to take on two of his patents; one relating to a piston filled fountain pen and the other a drawing pen (an early version of the Graphos). It does not appear that he was ever an employee of the company but rather served in the role of an independent contractor. The contract gave Günther Wagner the ability to option Mr. Kovàcs fountain pen and patents until December 31, 1927. He was to devise a prototype, at Günther Wagner’s expense, thereby bringing his technical drawings to life. To accomplish this, he would hire a model builder and an industrial designer. Some accounts such as the one in Lambrou’s Fountain Pens Of The World mention a Carola Bako who had a hand in the process. While I could not independently confirm, he may have been one of Mr. Kovàcs’ hired help. With a working prototype in hand, a new contract was signed which extended the time period of the first by an additional four months. Mr. Kovàcs was tasked with readying the assembly line for production for which he received 3500 Marks. During this time, Pelikan would continue to explore other potential intellectual properties to bring to market. Günther Wagner ultimately opted to pursue Mr. Kovàcs’ design and patents were registered in Europe, the USA, Canada, and Argentina. Because of prior contractual agreements with the Moster Penkala company, Pelikan would have to pay royalties for the use of the patent in the areas outlined above (an arrangement that ended in May of 1939). By 1929, Pelikan had re-patented the product under its own name and brought Mr. Kovac’s design to market. This brings us to German patent DE457462, filed on September 29, 1926 and issued on March 16, 1928.
Patent DE457462 may not be on the tip of every pen aficionados’ tongue but it is something that Pelikan has highlighted on multiple occasions. You would be forgiven for missing the engraving adorning the pistons of high end limited editions such as Pelikan’s 75th Anniversary model from 2004 and the 1929 Herzstück from 2019. Because of the language barrier, I will focus on dissecting US patent US1706616 granted on March 26, 1929 which appears to be the equivalent English language document first filed by Theodor Kovàcs on September 15, 1927. By virtue of its filing a year after the original, it seems to be a bit more fleshed out than the German submission. Similar versions can be found filed in other countries as well. The patents reference a threaded piston filling system that facilitates the filling of a pen while reducing the risk of ink splatter. The differential created by using threads of different pitch would allow for an easy and efficient means of filling a fountain pen.
Figure 5 was not present on the original German patent. It is another longitudinal view showing the piston filling mechanism in action. The description indicates that the pen is held at the intermediate section and knob. The knob is then turned to the left which advances the piston forward as seen in the figure. The nib is then immersed into ink and the knob is turned to the right thereby drawing ink into the barrel. The knob will then snug against the intermediate section and form a seal, thereby preventing any ink which may have gotten behind the piston from leaking. The design highlights the fact that tightening the knob does not put stress on any other parts of the pen and does not risk inadvertent movement of the piston which could spill ink.
The above technical designs were reported by the author to distinguish themselves from others by virtue of their simple construction and easy operation. Theodor Kovàcs goes on to conclude the document by making five claims which summarize his designs. In the German document, he only made two such claims. Mr. Kovàcs would continue to work with Pelikan through at least the late 1950s and would be responsible for additional innovations and patents such as the “Pelikan Thermal Regulator” of the P1. There have been revisions made to the differential piston mechanism over the years, but the spirit of the original design persists, a testament to the innovation and longevity of Mr. Kovàcs’ inventiveness.
- Dittmer, Jürgen & Lehmann, Martin. “Pelikan Schreibgeräte 1929 – 1997.” Art Forum beim Baumhaus Verlag. Pages 24-28, 40, & 46. 1998.
- Dittmer, Jürgen & Lehmann, Martin. “Pelikan Schreibgeräte 1929 – 2004.” A.H.F. Dunkmann GmbH & Co KG. Pages 12 & 33-35. 2004.
- Günther Wagner. 1928. Füllfederhalter mid durch Schraubengetreibe bewegtem Saugkolben. DE457462.
- Kovàcs, Theodor. 1929. Fountain Pen. US1706616.
- Lambrou, Andreas. “Fountain Pens of the World.” Andreas Lambrou Publishers Ltd. Pages. 244 & 250. 2014.
- Pelikan. “1929-1950 – The Piston Filling Mechanism.” Last accessed 9/1/2020.
- Propas, Rick. “A History of Pelikan.” 2003. Last accessed 9/4/2020.