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Fountain pens bring spacecraft software developer back to earth

Former Northrop Grumman employee gave up his computer to indulge a long-held interest and begin creating limited-edition writing implements.

February 15, 2013|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times
  • Rik Knablein, photographed through a hand-shaped end table, holds some of the colorful engraved and enameled writing instruments he designed for his high-end pen company.
Rik Knablein, photographed through a hand-shaped end table, holds some… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

Spacecraft software developer Rik Knablein was sitting in front of his computer at Northrop Grumman in 2009 when he saw the handwriting on the wall.

He would leave his computer keyboard behind and begin designing and manufacturing fountain pens, he decided.

"I wanted to do something more artful," said the Hermosa Beach resident who helped develop the software that controls the Hubble Space Telescope, ground-level radar, and tracking and data relay satellites that NASA used to replace ground tracking stations.

"I wanted to do something that involved both sides of my brain."

Knablein is among hundreds of writing instrument enthusiasts taking part in the four-day Los Angeles International Pen Show, which ends Sunday in Manhattan Beach, where thousands of colorfully designed fountain and ballpoint pens will be on display for the public.

"When I was a kid my mom bought me a Sheaffer cartridge fountain pen that I used in high school. I guess that's when I developed a fascination with pens. It just sort of went dormant when I went to college and started developing software at TRW," the 66-year-old Knablein said.

His interest was rekindled when his daughter presented him with a Montblanc 149 pen when he completed a TRW-sponsored MBA program in 1995. Knablein was taken by its jet-black body, its gleaming gold nib and the way it smoothly moved across writing paper.

Soon, he was collecting pens and displaying them in wood-framed glass enclosures in his home. As his collection grew toward about 200, he made his decision to shift careers from aerospace to an industry that's rooted in the 1880s.

These days he and partner Rich Littlestone of Denver have produced several lines of pens of varying length, width and weight. Some have an exotic, elegant look and are made of engraved sterling silver. Others are hand-painted with bright and flashy enamel.

"These colors were inspired by the color of the ties that politicians wear on television," Knablein said, pointing to pens bearing colors he describes as "grape, lime, cherry and orange" that were lined up in a display case.

"I design them, and the barrels are made in Plymouth, England, at the Conway Stewart pen factory. Rich does the engraving on the metal ones. All the pens we make are limited editions — we make no more than 18 at a time. Having one of only 18 is a special thing for a collector.

"But most of my pens are used for writing: a writer in Florida writes her stories with a pen, a doctor uses one of my roller ball pens in his practice, a friend who is a financial consultant keeps one in a case on his desk for special signings."

Sold as the RiKwill brand, his fountain pens are priced from $1,000 to $4,000. Users can select the type of nibs they want: nibs that are slightly ground down give handwriting a cursive, calligraphic look. Down-strokes look artfully pudgy, he explains; strokes to the left and right are skinny.

Most of his fountain pens come with roller ball inserts that can convert them into ballpoints if the user desires.

Although fountain pens fell out of favor when cheap ballpoints became available in the 1950s, Knablein and fellow enthusiasts argue they never have gone away.

"I think they're slowly coming back into vogue. They require a little more attention than a ballpoint, but they give you more flexibility. There are many more ink colors available for fountain pens, probably 75 or 100," he said.

"I really love the ability to write short personal notes by hand rather than with a computer keyboard. We are strapped to the computer all day, and it's nice to see an appreciation for pen and paper."

Los Angeles is a focal point of fountain-pen culture. Besides Knablein's company, there are well-known pen sellers in Monrovia and Carson, and Canoga Park is home to the Yafa Pen Co., 35-year-old manufacturer and distributor of fountain and ballpoint pens.

Experts say Los Angeles' annual pen trade show ranks with Washington, D.C.'s as the country's largest.

The four-day trade show is at the Manhattan Beach Marriott at 1400 Parkview Ave. The first three days were reserved for about 200 pen dealers and traders who have paid a $170 exhibition fee, and the general public will be admitted Sunday between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. for $7 a person.

bob.pool@latimes.com

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