I struck gold in the basement last week: 14 carat gold in the form of this delightful didactic display showing stages in making a fountain pen nib.
Note the shape of the ‘breather hole’, which exposes ink to the air and helps it move smoothly towards the writing tip: a tiny heart. The perfect nib for writing a Valentine’s Day card!
Gold has been used to make jewellery and keepsakes since ancient times. Pure gold is too soft to use for nibs, or indeed for jewellery, so alloys are used instead. To make 14 carat yellow gold, the pure metal is alloyed with copper and silver; 58.3% of the mixture is gold, and the rest consists of equal amounts of copper and silver.
A nib with a gold point would wear quickly, so a tiny quantity of a fourth metal is fused onto the writing tip. This is iridium, a very rare, very dense element. Like gold, it is highly resistant to corrosion, and an iridium-tipped gold nib can last a lifetime and write millions of words.
Iridium derives its name from the Greek goddess Iris, whose symbol was a rainbow. The chemist who discovered it, Smithson Tennant, named it for the ‘striking variety of colours which it gives, while dissolving in marine acid’ (hydrochloric acid). Just the element for penning a Valentine’s Day card with hope in one’s heart!
Tennant also discovered the true nature of diamond, another gift we associate with romantic love. He did this in 1796 by rather unromantically heating diamonds with potassium nitrate in a gold vessel and deducing that diamond is merely a crystallised form of ‘charcoal’, the element we now call carbon.
The gold nib display was donated to the museum in 1924 by the Wahl Company of Chicago, which later made pens with the brand name Eversharp. Reaching behind it on the basement shelf, I found this slightly battered card listing the steps in making a nib. As well as adding value to the object, this list has a certain inherent charm. It links us to the person who wrote it by hand, perhaps using a gold nib with a tiny heart delivering ink to its rainbow tip.