So much of our writing, these days takes place digitally, and we spend an extraordinary amount of time at our keyboards or tapping out messages on our phones. The pen is still an essential part of our modern existence, and just about everyone owns a ballpoint pen. But it’s been a long road throughout recorded history and writing only really became easy in the past few hundred years. Before that, only the elite few could write, and writing materials were hard to come by.
Until the arrival of paper, writing instruments were largely shaped by the materials that were available to write on. Paper was invented as early as the year A.D. 105 in China, but it didn’t reach Europe until the 11th century, which leaves a very long history of writing on other surfaces before that. The very earliest writing instruments were sharpened stones used by cavemen to scratch crude illustrations representing everyday events such as farming and hunting. The clay tablet, which dates back to around 8 500 BC was a more portable means of communicating and coincides with the shift towards using symbols to represent words and phrases. As symbols developed and became more complex, the first alphabet replaced pictographs between 1700 and 1500 B.C. Damp clay required a writing implement that would leave a clear mark, but not crumble the surface, so early scribes used a reed with one squared-off end to press triangular marks and short straight lines into the clay. Curves were too difficult to execute clearly, so early writing like Sumerian cuneiform was all based on triangles and lines.
Writing developed very early in Asia, as early as 1200BC – and the Chinese used a brush to write elaborate calligraphy which was considered an art form. In Southeast Asia and India, palm leaves were used as a writing surface and scribes used a stylus to inscribe letters with a flat blade on the other end for scraping the leaf smooth.
The Greeks also used a stylus often made from metal, bone or ivory, but the material of choice was a wax coated tablet. The Romans, famous for carving writing into stone tablets, also used wax for taking temporary notes. To write in the wax, Roman scribes used a stylus that was long and thin like a pen but had a point on one end for writing, and a broad, flat area on the other end for erasing by smoothing the wax out.
One of the earliest paper-like writing surfaces was the papyrus of the Egyptians, and they used a reed pen with which to write. Lengths of reed were cut to a point on one end and slit to facilitate the movement of ink. They had to be repeatedly dipped in ink, but this worked well enough that very similar pens made from different materials were used right up into the 20th century, and are even used by some artists and calligraphers today.
Medieval Europeans used parchment or vellum which is specially prepared animal skin. They had metal-tipped bone styluses and also used a thin piece of lead called a “plummet” which was much like a very early pencil. It was also at this time that pens cut from feathers called quill pens made their appearance and were dipped in ink to write with. But a lengthy preparation time and inability to last a long time left inventors and writers alike looking for alternatives.
The fountain pen was only to appear a thousand years after the quill started being used and in 1702 an early fountain pen with a reservoir of ink was developed. The earliest designs weren’t very practical and even John Jacob Parker’s self-filling fountain pen in 1831 was plagued with design flaws. It wasn’t until Lewis Waterman’s 1884 fountain pen that the first practical, mass-produced option became available. These allowed writers to easily carry a pen with its own ink supply but even these were still plagued with spills and other pitfalls.
Throughout the early 20th century various improvements were made to the fountain pen, the Parker Pen Co patented a “button filler” in 1905 and the lever filler, click filler, matchstick filler, and coin filler were soon to follow, giving pen connoisseurs the opportunity to test different ink-filling mechanisms. Eventually, in 1950 an ink cartridge was produced using plastic or glass that was a prefilled, disposable solution to the ink filling problem. But this would soon be overtaken by the ballpoint pen.
The first ballpoint was actually made in 1938 by Laszlo Biro, who used ink similar to newspaper press ink to create a quick-drying, smudge-free writing experience. Companies such as Reynolds and Eversharp aimed to take the ball-point market by storm, but it struggled to catch on during the ‘40s and ‘50s. It was only when the Parker Pen Co introduced the Jotter in 1954 that the tide really turned. They sold 3.5 million units in less than a year and in 1957 Parker bought out Eversharp’s pen division which was in deep financial trouble by now and they eventually went out of business by the ‘60s. BIC began selling pens in 1950 and by the end of the decade held 70 percent of the European market. BIC bought Waterman Pens in 1958 and took the American market by storm, selling pens for between $.29 and $.69.
Rollerball pens were first introduced to the market in the 1980s. This instrument uses a mobile ball and liquid ink which is supposed to produce a smoother line than the ballpoint pen and be easier to control than the traditional fountain pen.
Gel Pens are now very popular and were introduced by Japanese company Sakura Color Products who invented gel ink in 1984. The gel ink uses pigments suspended in a water-soluble polymer matrix.
As with so much of technology, the amount of progress in the 20th century compared with the previous thousand years is simply staggering. Today we hardly think about using pens – it’s just part of everyday life, but it has taken thousands of years to evolve to the point where we are today.