The Mysterious Pen of Dr. Mabuse


Recently I was watching the 1922 film Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler and I noticed something very strange - in one scene, when a character pulls out a pen to write his address, he clicks it.

The reason this is odd is the click ball pen wasn't invented until around 1950. On top of that, the note is shown shortly after and appears to be written with a fountain pen:

Of course since it's a movie there's no reason to believe this is the card actually written in the scene, but then again why bother using a different pen altogether?

Pilot claims their "Vanishing Point" or "Capless" line, released in 1963, was the first click fountain pen ever released, though the earlier Asterope (1934) and Meteore Pullman (1932) were similar in many respects. In any case all of these are far too late to be showing up in a 1922 silent film.

While not click-based, there were Japanese pens released in the 20s under the name "Capless" - apparently unrelated to Pilot's later development - that had a retractable nib and could be operated with one hand. Information about them is very scarce, though - all I've found is one forum thread and one series of Japanese blog posts. As the Japanese blog posts explain, the date on their patent is Taisho 12 or 1924, so even that's too late unless some were produced while the patent was being processed.

Leaving aside the click fountain pens, pens with retracting nibs were actually common in the 1920s in the form of "safety" pens designed with an emphasis on preventing leakage. However, the point of the retracting nib was to allow you to drop ink straight into the barrel, so if one of those pens had the cap off and nib retracted in your pocket all the ink would just spill out. Additionally, most of them required twisting to extend the nib - not something you'd do with one hand.

There is another familiar writing instrument that clicks and doesn't use caps - mechanical pencils. However, in the 1920s mechanical pencils were still ordinarily operated by turning the cap or nose - Eversharp, one of the major brands, didn't release a clicking pencil until 1936.

Button-action pencils intended primarily for drafting were available as early as 1879, but the first models weren't "propellers" - clicking didn't advance lead slightly, it just let it go completely, so you had to get the length right by aligning it on a writing surface. In the video the first click is in the air, so those are out.

So, to review the action in the scene:

  1. the Doctor removes the pen from his pocket
  2. he uses his thumb on the non-writing end and begins writing
  3. after writing, he puts his thumb on the non-writing end again...
  4. then pushes the pen against the table
  5. then withdraws the pen to his pocket

I've avoided using the word "click" because given the quality of the video it's possible he's operating a lever or other device near the head of the pencil. Steps 3-5 are very familiar to anyone who's used a common modern mechanical pencil and hard to explain if the item was a fountain pen, but without a clear example of a pencil that would allow the action in the video I'm just not sure. If you have any ideas or information about this it would be much appreciated; feel free to mail me.

Update 2015-12-06: got a reasonable explanation on Reddit - it seems it was a clickable dip pen, which was readily available at the time the movie was made. While they would not normally be carried around inked, it could be done for a scene without spilling ink everywhere and would be operated in a manner consistent with the motions displayed. Mystery solved! Ψ