A Story of Your Old Friend, the History of the Pen
The pen is founded upon thousands of years of tradition and history, and except for writing your signature and greeting cards isn’t actually needed these days. The digital world has overtaken it in business and general communications, but yet. it hasn’t lost its attractiveness as a purveyor of personality and meaning.
Earliest ‘pens’ were actually stamps cut from reed or rushes that could vary the pattern of the imprint in clay tablets by changing its position from the perpendicular. The first people that we know about to use this system of pictographs known as a cuneiform script were the Sumerians some 3500 years ago, who inhabited the land known as Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It seems that this system of writing with several thousand characters was primarily used for recording commercial transactions, although much more research is required in to the ‘writing’ of these strange peoples. Eventually the Persians to the north adopted this general method of writing but significantly streamlined the number of characters used. The Egyptians also developed their system of Hieroglyphics by initially using reeds and clay tablets, but as their commercial and religious requirements increased, a better writing material was needed and thus papyrus was developed. The first writing on papyrus was with reeds, where the ends had been chewed to form a brush, and this with ink became a much more convenient method of writing. Similarly, the Chinese, and later the Japanese used brushes made from animal hair and dipped in inks made from soot and oil or gum, and even blood, which was the basis for most of the early inks. The Chinese also invented the process of making paper and kept the secret for 700 years until the Arabs acquired the knowledge in the 8th Century from where it spread via Spain to the rest of the world.
In the Middle East, the Phoenicians developed an alphabet based upon the earlier Babylonian cuneiform and further refined by the Greeks, who added vowels, and was becoming much closer to that used today. in conjunction with reed pens, animal hides were being used in addition to papyrus and it was a time of rapid development in the civilized world. The best reed pens came from the Persian Gulf, the calamus, and were about 1cm in diameter and 20-30cm long frequently clad with ivory or precious metal shafts. The points were cut to suit the style of lettering with an extremely sharp knife and then polished with whetstones. Bone or metal stylus were often used to scratch writing on to wooden tablets coated with wax or paint but reed pens were also used by the Greeks and Romans to write on papyrus and specially prepared animal skins.
It is thought that Quill pens were being used by the Egyptians but were certainly in use by the Romans where they were more convenient for smaller cursive letter than the more robust reed pens. by the 17th and 18th Century, millions of goose quills were being used every year, primarily from Russia and Poland, because as they were relatively soft a typical clerk would go through five every day. in order to become more cost effective, a patent was taken out by a certain Joseph Brahman for a machine that could cut a goose feather both lengthways and crossways, enabling up to twenty ‘nibs’ to be obtained from a single feather. These were inserted in to a nib holder made from wood and were the forerunner of the steel nibbed pen. Glass nibs were also tried with varying degrees of success but never really became established as a mainstream item. by now various other forms of ink were being used, including hawthorn ink but the preferred one was made from tannic acid, iron gall and gum, with other materials such as red lead, or wine to add colour.
The first pencils made from an alloy of lead and tin and left only a pale mark but in the 16th Century crude graphite was discovered and found to leave a clearer mark, however it wasn’t until the time of Napoleon that modern quality was arrived at by mixing it with clay and then baking at high temperatures. in 1869 in America, AT Cross developed the first mechanical pencil with a twist feed and these have since gone through a number of developments leading to greater efficiency and reliability.
The first steel nibs were produced by an English chemist in 1780 although it was 1818 before they were produced in any quantity and the early ones were quite still problematic. Improvements in design meant that by 1831, the steel nib had become a serious competitor to the quill and by 1850; 180 million nibs a year were being manufactured. A wide variety of nibs were developed with different widths, flexibilities, angles and offsets, with some wholesalers offering over 400 variations. Osmium-Iridium tips were soldered on to enhance longevity, and often the nibs were beautifully styled and produced from a number of metals, including gold, another precursor to modern fountain pens. The nib holders were regularly improved, becoming ever more stylish and ornate as time went by, utilizing an ever wider range of materials.
Attempts to make a pen that carried its own ink supply had been made over the years but by the early 19th Century it was occupying the attention of many inventors and a number of patents were taken out for different designs, each promising to provide the ideal solution but often proving to be unreliable.
The first effective and reliable fountain pen was introduced by LE Waterman in 1884 and it was a sensation. Naturally the copyists were soon on to it, producing their own variations, each advertised as possessing some unique benefit or advantage. These early pens were filled with eyedroppers but the race was on to produce an automatic filler, this was won by Conklin with the famous Crescent filler, however swiftly followed by Sheaffer with the lever filler that remained in wide use until the 1940s and 1950s.
The fountain pen has continued to develop through improved filling systems, materials and nibs up to the present day, although competition from Ball Point pens, Rollerballs and more latterly the typewriter, word processor and computer has continued to put pressure on its existence.
Despite this, the use of Fountain Pens and the art of Penmanship have not disappeared.
Now the pen is only needed for signatures, greeting cards and brief notes, but in the case of a fountain pen, it has become something of a personal statement and a means of expressing ones individuality in this digital age. Where will it end?
Can the pen continue to offer intelligent humans a way of communicating that allows them to express themselves in a much more meaningful way?