The Development of Writing Tools

Writing is one of the most important inventions of humanity. It allowed us to record our history, ideas and discoveries and spread them across the globe for all to know. As the writing developed so did writing instruments and techniques.

Earliest writing tools didn’t use pigment to live mark on the surface but were made to be rigid so they could engrave texts into different materials. Chinese, for instance, carved into turtle shells.

Ancient Sumerians and Babylonians used triangular stylus to write in soft clay tablets which would be later baked. Romans wrote in wax tablets with styluses which allowed them to erase written text. These methods, of course, had their disadvantages. Clay tablets were heavy and brittle. Wax tablets were not heat resistant. Because of that people tried to find other solutions. They appeared in the form of writing tools that use pigment of some sort. Scribes of Ancient Egypt used reed pens which were made from a single reed straw, cut and shaped into a point.

As a surface for writing with these pens was used papyrus. Reed pens didn’t last long when used and were too stiff so they were replaced with quills. Quills are pens made from flight feathers of large birds. The hollow shaft of these feathers holds the ink which flows to the tip, which is cut into the shaft, by capillary action. Different materials were used to be written on with quills, like parchment and vellum. It is known that some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, dating back to 100 BC, were written with quills. First quills were cut into a square tip and rigid and were like that for many centuries imitating reed pens. From the 17th century, when writing became more popular, quills were made to be more flexible and cut to a point. Some hundred years earlier, deposits of graphite were discovered in England which marked the birth of pencils which didn’t use ink but a core of a solid pigment, graphite in the beginning and later mixture of powdered graphite and clay. They were at first covered in leather and later in thin wooden cylinder as we still do today. They became popular because they were easy to use, couldn’t spill and could be easily erased if a mistake is made, unlike ink. Some even come with an eraser on one end.

Popularity of quills lasted until 19th century when the first pens with metal nibs appeared (although there were earlier tries of metal pens but they didn’t catch on). John Mitchell from Birmingham was the first to mass-produce pens with metal nibs in 1822. These had a handle and a metal point with a split that held a small amount of ink when dipped. They worked the same as quills but lasted much longer, didn’t need to be sharpened and could be made to a much finer point. Bartholomew Folsch received a patent in England for a pen with an ink reservoir in 1809. French Government patented a fountain pen in May 1827 which was an invention of Romanian Petrache Poenaru. Ballpoint pen was invented in 1888, by John J. Loud and improved by László Bíró in 1938. Slavoljub Eduard Penkala invented mechanical pencil in 1906 and the first solid-ink fountain pen in 1907.