These days, when we want to handwrite something, we reach for a ballpoint pen, but it wasn't always so. There is a long history of writing with other kinds of tools before our writing instruments got as advanced as a pen with a supply of ink inside.
Writing Surface and Technology
The kind of writing implements used at various periods in history have a lot to do with the surfaces that people used to write on. We're accustomed to paper, and even though a lot of our communicating is done on computers now, paper is everywhere. But even though paper was invented as early as the year A.D. 105 in China, it didn't reach Europe until the 11th century, which leaves a very long history of writing on other surfaces before that.
The development of technology also had an effect on what writing implements could be made of. This is especially clear when we look at the evolution of pens that contain their own ink supply, but even early writing implements changed as other technologies, such as metallurgy, advanced.
Tools for Writing on Clay
The very earliest writing known to history is found in the area now known as Mesopotamia, and it was impressed into clay tablets around 3000 B.C. Before that, of course, people decorated their tools, their homes, and (probably) themselves, but writing — a system of expressing meaning through specific marks on a surface — didn't appear until then.
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 those triangles and lines.
Tools for Writing on Leaves and Wood
Writing developed very early in Asia, too (by 1200 B.C. or earlier), where cheap, readily available writing surfaces were preferred. The first Chinese writing was painted with a brush or inscribed with a knife on wood, bamboo and even flat animal bone. Inscribed writing was often filled in with ink afterwards, to make it more visible.
In Southeast Asia and India, the most common writing surface was palm leaves, which were in widespread use by the seventh century A.D. or earlier. To write on these leaves, scribes used a stylus quite similar to the ones by the Romans (see below). It was bronze, with a sharp point on one end for inscribing the letters and a flat blade on the other end for scraping the surface of the leaf smooth. As with Chinese writing, the inscribed letters would be filled with ink after writing, to make it more legible.
Tools for Writing on Wax
For many centuries, Roman scribes used wooden tablets filled with wax for taking temporary notes, and even though writing technology had vastly improved in other ways (see the sections below for some examples), the Romans were faced with the same difficulties with curves as the Sumerians had. The Roman alphabet, also used extensively for inscriptions in stone, was made entirely of straight lines. 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.
Tools for Writing on Papyrus and Paper
The ancient Egyptians invented a writing surface called papyrus sometime in the third millennium B.C. It was made from layers of thin sections of reeds, and made such a practical surface that it was adopted all over the Mediterranean world, including Greece and Rome. The best tool for writing on papyrus — which is much like a very textured paper (and even gave paper its name) — was a reed pen. These pens were lengths of reed 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.
Papyrus didn't fold well because it became brittle as it dried, which is why early Western books were in the form of scrolls. In the East, where paper was available early on, a brush was used for writing. Because these brushes were thick but tapered to a fine point, ancient Chinese writing is composed of sweeping strokes with both thick and thin lines, and the art of calligraphy was highly regarded.
Tools for Writing on Parchment
Papyrus was used in Europe, too, but there was such a demand for writing materials that the supply of papyrus reeds began to run out, so another material was sought. Animal skin, prepared in just the right way, was found to be a durable surface that could even be scraped clean of ink and re-used if necessary. This was called parchment or vellum. It was actually in use, though not popular, as early as the third century B.C., but did not become widely used until much later. Medieval scribes used a metal-tipped bone stylus or a thin piece of lead called a "plummet" (an ancestor of the pencil) to mark out faint guidelines, then wrote using various types of pens, including reed pens, and pens cut from the flight feathers of large birds, called quill pens.
As metalworking became more refined, pen nibs were made of metal. Early metal nibs were durable and did not have to be sharpened like a quill pen did — though they still had to be dipped in ink every few letters — but they did corrode from the acids in early inks, and they were stiff and sometimes difficult to write with. As metal technology improved, so did pen nibs. A few pens were even made of blown glass, but were not widely adopted, probably because they broke easily.
Mechanical Pencils and Self-Replenishing Pens
Though most pencils were graphite (not lead) in wood, what we call the mechanical pencil was developed surprisingly early. Invented in 1822, the "Everpointed Pencil" had a somewhat thicker lead than pencils do now, but the principle was the same.
As we have seen, early pens all had to be dipped frequently in ink, so the invention of a pen with a reservoir that would last for many, many words was a big deal. The first of these pens, which we call fountain pens, was invented in 1702 (though the earliest designs were not very practical) and could be refilled as needed from a bottle of ink. Various different refilling methods were devised, most involving some kind of built-in suction device, but fountain pens now can be refilled by inserting a plastic pre-filled cartridge.
The initial invention of the ballpoint pen in 1888 resulted in a product that did not catch on. A truly practical ballpoint pen — also called a "biro" — first required the development of an ink of the right consistency to flow smoothly out of the pen without leaking. Such an ink was finally developed in 1938, though it was still many years before it was perfected.
Writing as Art
These days people handwrite less and less. The printing press made multiple copies of books much easier to produce, and then the typewriter eliminated the need for composing everything by hand. Computers have made things even easier, though there are still many times that handwriting works best. The recent invention of tablet computers, though, may help do away with all but the most casual handwriting--except, of course, in the realm of art, where old technologies continue to delight both artists and viewers of art.
Mell, George. Writing Antiques. Shire Publications, 1980.
- Illustrations by the author. All rights reserved.
Diringer, David. The Book Before Printing. Dover, 1982.
Whalley, Joyce Irene. Writing Implements and Accessories From the Roman Stylus to the Typewriter. David & Charles, 1975.
Gaur, Albertine. Writing Materials of the East. The British Library, 1979.
De Hamel, Christopher. Scribes and Illuminators. University of Toronto Press, 1992.
Brookfield, Karen. Book. Dorling Kindersley, 2000.