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A Brief History of Writing Instruments
Part 1: From cave paintings to the quill pen -- how ink, paper and pens were all were invented.
A Brief History of Writing Instruments
Ancient writing instruments - From left to right: quills, bamboo, pen sharpeners, fountain pens, pencils, brushes.
A Brief History of Writing Instruments
• Part 1: Introduction A Brief History of Writing Instruments
Part 2: The History of the Fountain Pen
Part 3: The Battle of the Ballpoint Pens
Related Resources
The Alphabet
Johannes Gutenberg

By Mary Bellis

The history of writing instruments by which humans have recorded and conveyed thoughts, feelings and grocery lists, is the history of civilization itself. This is how we know the story of us, by the drawings, signs and words we have recorded.

The cave man's first inventions were the hunting club (not the auto security device) and the handy sharpened-stone, the all-purpose skinning and killing tool. The latter was adapted into the first writing instrument. The cave man scratched pictures with the sharpened-stone tool onto the walls of his cave dwelling. The cave drawings represented events in daily life such as the planting of crops or hunting victories.

With time, the record-keepers developed systematized symbols from their drawings. These symbols represented words and sentences, but were easier and faster to draw and universally recognized for meaning. The discovery of clay made portable records possible (you can't carry a cave wall around with you). Early merchants used clay tokens with pictographs to record the quantities of materials traded or shipped. These tokens date back to about 8,500 B.C. With the high volume of and the repetition inherent in record keeping, pictographs evolved and slowly lost their picture detail. They became abstract-figures representing sounds in spoken communication. The alphabet replaced pictographs between 1700 and 1500 B.C. in the Sinaitic world. The current Hebrew alphabet and writing became popular around 600 B.C. About 400 B.C. the Greek alphabet was developed. Greek was the first script written from left to right. From Greek followed the Byzantine and the Roman (later Latin) writings. In the beginning, all writing systems had only uppercase letters, when the writing instruments were refined enough for detailed faces, lowercase was used as well (around 600 A.D.)

The earliest means of writing that approached pen and paper as we know them today was developed by the Greeks. They employed a writing stylus, made of metal, bone or ivory, to place marks upon wax-coated tablets. The tablets made in hinged pairs, closed to protect the scribe's notes. The first examples of handwriting (purely text messages made by hand) originated in Greece. The Grecian scholar, Cadmus invented the written letter - text messages on paper sent from one individual to another.

Writing was advancing beyond chiseling pictures into stone or wedging pictographs into wet clay. The Chinese invented and perfected 'Indian Ink'. Originally designed for blacking the surfaces of raised stone-carved hieroglyphics, the ink was a mixture of soot from pine smoke and lamp oil mixed with the gelatin of donkey skin and musk. The ink invented by the Chinese philosopher, Tien-Lcheu (2697 B.C.), became common by the year 1200 B.C. Other cultures developed inks using the natural dyes and colors derived from berries, plants and minerals. In early writings, different colored inks had ritual meaning attached to each color.

papyrus and parchment papersThe invention of inks paralleled the introduction of paper. The early Egyptians, Romans, Greeks and Hebrews, used papyrus and parchment papers. One of the oldest pieces of writing on papyrus known to us today is the Egyptian "Prisse Papyrus" which dates back to 2000 B.C. The Romans created a reed-pen perfect for parchment and ink, from the hollow tubular-stems of marsh grasses, especially from the jointed bamboo plant. They converted bamboo stems into a primitive form of fountain pen. They cut one end into the form of a pen nib or point. A writing fluid or ink filled the stem, squeezing the reed forced fluid to the nib.

By 400 A.D. a stable form of ink developed, a composite of iron-salts, nutgalls and gum, the basic formula, which was to remain in use for centuries. Its color when first applied to paper was a bluish-black, rapidly turning into a darker black and then over the years fading to the familiar dull brown color commonly seen in old documents. Wood-fiber paper was invented in China in 105 A.D. but it only became known about (due to Chinese secrecy) in Japan around 700 A.D. and brought to Spain by the Arabs in 711 A.D. Paper was not widely used throughout Europe until paper mills were built in the late 14th century.

The writing instrument that dominated for the longest period in history (over one-thousand years) was the quill pen. Introduced around 700 A.D., the quill is a pen made from a bird feather. The strongest quills were those taken from living birds in the spring from the five outer left wing feathers. The left wing was favored because the feathers curved outward and away when used by a right-handed writer. Goose feathers were most common; swan feathers were of a premium grade being scarcer and more expensive. For making fine lines, crow feathers were the best, and then came the feathers of the eagle, owl, hawk and turkey.

Quill pens lasted for only a week before it was necessary to replace them. There were other disadvantages associated with their use, including a lengthy preparation time. The early European writing parchments made from animal skins, required much scraping and cleaning. A lead and a ruler made margins. To sharpen the quill, the writer needed a special knife (origins of the term "pen-knife".) Beneath the writer's high-top desk was a coal stove, used to dry the ink as fast as possible.

Plant-fiber paper became the primary medium for writing after another dramatic invention took place: Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press with replaceable wooden or metal letters in 1436. Simpler kinds of printing e.g. stamps with names, used much earlier in China, did not find their way to Europe. During the centuries, many newer printing technologies were developed based on Gutenberg's printing machine e.g. offset printing.

Articles written by hand had resembled printed letters until scholars began to change the form of writing, using capitals and small letters, writing with more of a slant and connecting letters. Gradually writing became more suitable to the speed the new writing instruments permitted. The credit of inventing Italian 'running hand' or cursive handwriting with its Roman capitals and small letters, goes to Aldus Manutius of Venice, who departed from the old set forms in 1495 A.D. By the end of the 16th century, the old Roman capitals and Greek letterforms transformed into the twenty-six alphabet letters we know today, both for upper and lower-case letters.

When writers had both better inks and paper, and handwriting had developed into both an art form and an everyday occurrence, man's inventive nature once again turned to improving the writing instrument, leading to the development of the modern fountain pen.

Continue with >> How feathers turned into fountain pens

artwork mary bellis
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