I'd like for a character in a vaguely medieval fantasy to be able to dispense drops of a ink reliably from a pipette, but I'm not sure whether this is a plausible - the tech level is pre-1500, but it seems that pipettes weren't invented until the 19th century.

I only need to be able to dispense drops; nothing more accurate than that (and so I don't mind which type of pipette is used), but the ink (which is water-based and not heavily acidic or alkaline) is precious and so the pipette needs not to leak or otherwise lose its contents accidentally.

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    The most basic design is simply a small straight pipe, like a drink straw. I am pretty sure it could be made in middle ages from glass or metal. To use, You put one end into liquid, cover other end with your finger, lift out, shake any drops off, then move to new spot, and lift your finger to release. – Bald Bear Aug 15 at 13:22
  • What do you mean by pipette? Do you mean a mechanical high precision adjustable pipette that can be accurate at dispensing nanolitres? Or is aproximate, good enough? – Garret Gang Aug 15 at 13:35
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    @GarretGang I thought that I only need to be able to dispense drops; nothing more accurate than that (and so I don't mind which type of pipette is used) made it pretty clear that it doesn't have to be that precise, and that the precise type doesn't matter. – walrus Aug 15 at 13:49
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    The main issue you'll have if you need to keep the liquid in the pipette is volatiles. Volatile compounds will evaporate in the pipette, and the change in pressure can force drops out (this happens to me every day when transferring aqua ammonia). Water isn't super volatile, but it can still do this. Also, if you set the pipette down liquid can run down the inside and into the bulb/stopper/batting/etc, making it hard or impossible to dispense the liquid again in a proper way. Pipettes are not good for storage. Perhaps a burette would be better? – realityChemist Aug 15 at 13:54
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    Depends on the ink. Many inks in, say, markers or printers are based on ethanol or low MW hydrocarbons, which are generally quite volatile on purpose so they dry on the page quickly (to avoid smudging). You say your ink is water based, so it's not too volatile, but in a thin pipette (low volume for evaporation -> faster pressure increase) even water can do this on a warm day, albeit much, much more slowly. I like @Alexander's idea: a dropper or pipette that fits into a vial solves this problem well. – realityChemist Aug 15 at 17:08
up vote 46 down vote accepted

There was actually a natural 'pipette' in regular use during the medieval age: the quill pen. The scientist could take a feather normally used as a quill, cut off the feather, then clip the end of the tip. I would think this becomes almost the ideal pipette with even the graduated narrowing at the exit.

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    This is also what I thought of! It would be nice if you can add a picture to the answer. – DhDd Aug 16 at 8:06
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    Or a straw, plucked from a field – Mawg Aug 16 at 14:55
  • I am pretty sure this is possible with a straw. Plunged into the ink, closing the other end with one finger, then said finger controls the delivery, drop by drop. Not absolutely easy, but certainly possible. – Balzola Aug 17 at 13:34

Yes, it's possible.

The most basic type of a pipette is an empty tube with a small opening on one end (where the content is expelled from) and a smaller than thumb sized hole on the other end.

You dip the tube into a liquid and cover the upper hole with your finger or thumb. You now have an amount of liquid trapped in the tube. Release your finger very carefully and you allow air to flow into the tube, expelling the same volume of liquid. For better precision, you could make the upper hole very small.

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    I'm on board with this comment. I work in a wet lab (which I should be in right now, actually) and you can transfer drops of fluid with great ease, if that's all the precision you need. As @YElm says, a straw would work fine, but you could apply the same principle with any hollow tube. For more precise transfers, you could draw out a thin glass tube like a Pasteur pipette sans bulb (small drops = more precision). If you need the liquid to stay in for a while, you could design a stopper to seal the top instead of a finger. – realityChemist Aug 15 at 13:47
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    @realityChemist Or if you can't make the glass tube (perhaps you're in medieval China?), then rub a straight dowel (wood or metal?) with lard or similar, wrap in clay and fire it in a kiln, then pull the dowel out to make a ceramic pipette. Add the most non-reactive glaze you have available (i.e. the same sort you are using on your medieval beakers & flasks) and you can practically mass-produce them. – Chronocidal Aug 16 at 9:43

"Soda straw" stalactite. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soda_straw

soda straw stalactite https://isearch.asu.edu/profile/2546579

I think the goose quill is probably the most practical approach in answers so far. Practical, shmractical, I say! What about a stone pipette? Soda straw stalactites grow naturally in caves. They are hollow in the middle. They are crystalline marvels, and can be found in different colors and even fluorescent!

soda straw stalactite

I think good décor for an alchemist lab would be an entire formation of these soda straw stalactites, suspended from the ceiling. The alchemist could break one off when needed.

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    +1 for the uniqueness and out-of-the-box thinking- – MichaelK Aug 16 at 6:27

Fountain pen

There really is not much to add from the Wikipedia article...

Early prototypes of reservoir pens

An early historical mention of what appears to be a reservoir pen dates back to the 10th century. According to Al-Qadi al-Nu'man (d. 974) in his Kitab al-Majalis wa 'l-musayarat, the Fatimid caliph Al-Mu'izz li-Din Allah demanded a pen that would not stain his hands or clothes, and was provided with a pen that held ink in a reservoir, allowing it to be held upside-down without leaking.

There is compelling evidence that a working fountain pen was constructed and used during the Renaissance by artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo's journals contain drawings with cross-sections of what appears to be a reservoir pen that works by both gravity and capillary action. Historians also took note of the fact that the handwriting in the inventor's surviving journals is of a consistent contrast throughout, rather than the characteristic fading pattern typical of a quill pen caused by expending and re-dipping. While no physical item survives, several working models were reconstructed in 2011 by artist Amerigo Bombara that have since been put on display in museums dedicated to Leonardo.

"But I want a real pipette"

This video references Venetian glass making for how to make glass tubes. Venetian glass making was well developed before the 1500s.

And this video shows how to make a pipette from a glass tube. It really is not much harder than just heating a glass tube in the middle and pulling it apart at the correct rate.

So even if pipettes were not invented until the 1800s in real life, this is more likely because chemistry did not require pipettes until then, than any technological limitations. If your character requires them in the 15th century, then-existing technology was more than enough to make a glass pipette.

A Pasteur pipette should not be difficult to make.

Either with a glass tube, replacing the plastic/rubber part with bladder/stomach of some small animals, or with a straw & bladder assembly, going along the same line.

A smarter solution would be to use the shell of an emptied egg. It has two opposite hole, controlling the opening of the upper one you can decide when you want to release drops from the bottom one (doesn't work wit acid or hot liquids)

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    For Pasteur pipette, we would need springy rubber-like material, bladder/stomach would not bounce back to a round shape. – Alexander Aug 15 at 16:35

What is a pipette?

Others have mentioned that a glass tube and sticking your thumb on the end is very easy, i agree. but i'll add a little extra for a conventional pipette

A long narrow glass tube with rubber bulb at the end, which when air is expelled by pinching the rubber end, and when the glass tip is placed in liquid, and the pressure on the rubber is released. then suction drags the liquid into the glass tube and smaller pressure can release a drop of liquid at a time.

Glass tube

Glass blowing was common in medium to large towns and cities across Medieval Europe, and they would be capable of making a small internal diameter tube glass rod, it may have fairly thick walls of glass but its very doable.

The most likely the way it would be done would be to place a tapered steel rod into a blob of molten glass and then shape the glass around the rod, then as the glass cooled, carefully extract the rod while the glass was hard enough not to deform but molten enough to not stop the rod being removed. it being a tapered rod would make this process slightly easier.

Rubber Bulb

and while rubber in the send of the bulb was not really known, rubber was, so its plausible that it could be done, it could be made out of leather, water skins were common place in medieval times, and they were capable of making leather have sufficient rigidity that it would return to its original shape after releasing it, the only thing i would say is that a leather bulb would not snap back to shape instantly like rubber would, it would re-expand out,so it would not be as quick to draw the liquid. but dispensing it would still be the same, might have to be slightly more cautious, and the leather would probably have to run most of the length of the tube to ensure airtightness.

Conclusion

Yep, definitely plausible, but it would likely be a very expensive item for its time.

I'd use a combination of a tiny thin blown glass tube, a reed, or bird quill, candle wax and either an obviously deceased small animal bladder or oil clothe coated round of fabric,say silk. I'd use thread and wax to keep the 'bulb'connected to the tube of the pipette, and to prevent accidental leakage I'd probably use a wee hot wax pearl to 'plug it up'after every use.

Pipettes have been around since before the 19th century, as the most basic pipette is a simple tube that is filled by inserting it into a liquid, and then covering the top of the straw, relying on air pressure to keep the liquids inside the pipette.

Mouth pipetting was common until the 1970s. Yes, really. Sucking chemicals through a specialized straw was common practice in scientific labs throughout the industrialized world until after man walked on the moon.

https://www.darkdaily.com/mouth-pipetting-blogger-reminds-medical-laboratory-technologists-of-an-era-when-this-was-leading-source-of-clinical-laboratory-acquired-infections-510/

All you need is a large enough glass straw with a bulb that has been marked above the bulb. Glass has been around since antiquity. Its not the materials that are lacking in the 1500s.

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    Mouth pipetting is still sometimes done. I’ve never done it myself but I’ve been told by people who do that it’s more convenient and more precise — for volumes larger than amenable to micropipettes — than conventional pipettes. – Konrad Rudolph Aug 15 at 17:20

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