BOOK TITLE: The Australia Times - History magazine. Volume 2, issue 7

Vol. 2 No. 7 July 2015
A Work
of Art:
Classical Writing:
The Feather Quill Pen
Writing for the
Common Man
Writing for a
New Century
Writing. The history of Writing.
The tools of writing. The act of
writing. The therapeutic, relaxing
nature of writing. Writing is
something which has appealed to me
ever since the very first day I
realised you could use a pen for
things other than drawing stick-
figures on the wall. Even now, I
still remember the first stories
I ever wrote when I was five and
six years old. They were almost
invariably about cats. I don’t
know why this iscats are curious,
mischievous creatures, and I guess
I was, too. As are all of us when
we’re six years old.
I’ve always loved writing.
Reading about writing, writing
about writing, and writing about
the things I love. And in this
issue I’ll be able to combine them
into a marriage made in Heaven. Or
at least, Heaven on Earth.
Shahan Cheong
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Welcome to the TAT – HISTORY issue for July, 2015!
One of the most important achievements mankind ever made was the
creation, and understanding of, the written word. From ancient times to
the 21st century, fewer things have been more powerful and important,
interesting and funny, thought-provoking and revolutionary as words. Or
rather, the ability to write them down.
In this issue, we are looking at the history of the written word and the
history and development of writing instruments. If you’ve ever wondered
where writing came from, and how it evolved, and how the tools to create this
wondrous method of documenting human intelligence came from, this is the
issue for you! Let’s nd out together…
The Editor,
Shahan Cheong
Ȉ 
Ȉ 
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We come to you!
ver since the Stone Age,
mankind has looked for ways
to communicate and record
thoughts, ideas and events to other
people in ways that they might
understand. For centuries, man
has looked for ways to record for
posterity the great events of history
and the small events of the day.
A method for doing this would be
The earliest forms of ‘writing’, of
a sort, were the cave-paintings left
behind by early man. Hand-prints
and crude drawings of animals.
These basic pieces of art, although
they contain no letters, are the
first signs of man’s attempts at
communicating, and recording,
beyond the spoken word. Although
sufficient for conveying a simple
message of fact, painting was not
precise enough to record thoughts,
ideas or complex information.
If the human race was to advance
itself, it would need to find a way
to communicate. It had to learn
how to create symbols which stood
for words, it had to know how to
read these symbols, and how to
communicate using them. It had to
learn how to write!
Cuneiform and the First Writing
The earliest form of writing
which most people recognise is
called cuneiform, from the Latin
words meaning ‘wedge-shaped’.
Cuneiform used a reed or stylus
to press triangular, wedge-shaped
indentations into tablets of wax
or clay, in different combinations
in order to represent letters,
sounds and words. Dating back
over 5,000 years, cuneiform was
the written language used by the
Sumerians, one of the first recorded
civilisations, which existed in what
is today, the Middle East.
Created in about 3500BC, by the
2200s BC, cuneiform script had
evolved from simple representations
of thought, or pictographs, to more
complex communications regarding
human emotions, love, honour,
betrayal and religion. About a
hundred years after this came one
of the first serious pieces of written
literature in the history of mankind –
The Epic of Gilgamesh!
The Birth of Writing
by Shahan Cheong
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Ancient clay tablet with
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The story
about the
King of Uruk
(the capital
city of Sumer,
the ancient
land which
saw the birth
of cuneiform
writing) – the
Gilgamesh – is
considered the
first use of a
writing system
to create a work
of literature, or
to write down
an actual story
to share with
mankind for
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A Picture Paints a Thousand
Words: Hieroglyphics
Cuneiform was the first writing
system of which we know. But from
the start, this wasn’t a one-horse
race. Running alongside cuneiform
was another writing system, which is
probably far more familiar or famous
to us today – Hieroglyphics!
Invented by the Egyptians at
around the same time as cuneiform
(about 3500BC), hieroglyphics were
not letters. They were not even
words. These little pictures and
symbols were in fact syllables. Each
little image represented one syllable
of the Egyptian language. Strangely,
though, the word ‘hieroglyph
isn’t even Egyptian!...It’s Greek! It
comes from the two words ‘Hieros’
(“Sacred”) and ‘Glypho’ (“Carve”).
So literally – sacred carvings. In
Egyptian, this was translated into
“God’s Words”.
Hieroglyphs remained part of
Egyptian culture for thousands
of years, and along with the
hieroglyphs, the Egyptians also gave
us one of the first writing-tools!
The Stylus and the Reed Pen
Early writing systems, such as
cuneiform and hieroglyphics were
slow and complicated. This was not
aided by the writing implements
of the day, which comprised of
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a wooden wedge stylus to press
into clay tablets (to make the
combinations of wedges that made
up cuneiform), or a reed pen and ink
on papyrus (woven reeds) to create
The problem with reed pens was
that they never lasted very long.
Constant contact with ink (likely to
be made up of plant dyes or soot,
mixed with water) meant that the
tips would soon become too soggy
and weak, unable to hold a shape
properly. This meant that the tip
of the reed would have to be cut
off and reshaped periodically, to
create a new writing-point. For
this, and other reasons, such as the
complexity of writing hieroglyphics
for long periods of time, that newer,
faster and simpler writing systems
had to be developed! Like the
Phoenician Alphabet!
The Phoenician Alphabet
The Phoenicians (a civilisation
from Phonecia, modern-day
Lebanon) created what is widely
recognised as the world’s first
alphabet with symbols or letters
which could be combined in any
number of ways to spell out words
and phrases. Being able to chop and
change letters around, as well as
making them shorter and simpler
than hieroglyphics, made them
faster and easier to write.
Starting from about 1050BC, the
Phoenician alphabet was the new
way of writing. As Phoenician traders
sailed the Mediterranean Sea, their
language and alphabet spread to
the countries that bordered it. The
Greeks adapted and simplified the
letters, as did the Romans who came
after them.
During this time, writing was still a
slow and laborious process. For most
people, writing was still done using
wax tablets, or even stone slabs! For
this reason, writing quickly was not
possible, and any writing with curves
in the letters were also not possible.
For the next several centuries, the
reed pen reigned supreme as the
main writing instrument of the day,
but despite its widespread use, it
had several shortcomings.
Reeds are stiff. If you pressed on
it too hard, it would snap or break.
Reeds wore out easily and had to
be sharpened and reshaped over
and over again. This made them
unpopular, and people were always
trying to find something better to
write with.
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Classical Writing:
The Feather Quill Pen
by Shahan Cheong
After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 400s, reed
pens remained the primary writing instrument in the
Western world, but they also remained unpopular. This
persisted until the 500s, when a new writing tool was
developed – the quill pen!
The quill pen is the iconic writing instrument
of the Middle Ages! From around 500A.D. until
the mid-1800s, we imagine monks, priests,
men of letters, doctors, famous authors and
men of business scribbling diligently away
at their desks with fuzzy, fluffy, fluttery
white quill-feathers, producing line after
line of neat, legible script! Right?
Sorry to say, but the popular
image of the quill is just that –
an imagination – it almost never
existed in the real world.
During its period of popular
use, a quill was prepared in the
following way:
First, a feather was needed.
A large flight-feather, usually
taken from a goose, swan or
other sufficiently large bird.
and was
judged to
be in good
shape, the
feather was
tempered –
that is to say,
it was dried and
hardened. This
made it stronger and
meant it would be
more durable. This was
usually done by burying
the feather in hot sand, to
drive out all the moisture
in it.
The popular image of a quill
pen. Although they look very
pretty, quill pens were never
actually produced this way -
it was too impractical in the
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Once the feather was dry and
strong, the sand was removed and
using a small knife…a pen-knife…the
feather was prepared for use. First
step was to remove all the barbs!
The fluffy, white frilly bits at the
We often imagine that quills were
kept whole, but this was rarely the
case, purely for the fact that the barbs
would get in the way! So writers
making their own pens would usually
just cut them all o, or at least cut o
the majority of them, to make the pens
easier to hold.
Once the quill had been dried and
trimmed, it then had to be cut. The rst
cut at the tip was diagonal. Then two
more cuts to make a triangular point.
Then a fourth cut up the middle to
split the point into two ‘tines’. This last
cut created a channel for ink to ow
along when the pen was being used.
Quills were more popular than
reed pens because they could last
longer, but also because the flexible
nature of the quill point allowed
for different styles of writing. The
different ways that one could cut
the pen-point meant that even
more options were available. This
versatility led to new and more
artistic styles of handwriting, such
as the famous German Blackletter
script, and Uncial and Insular scripts,
widely associated with texts of the
Middle Ages. Producing writing
styles like this would be impossible
without the flexible writing points
of quill pens.
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Because of this, it would be
necessary every now and then, to
cut off the worn out pen-point, and
using your pen-knife, cut out a new
point. Over time, the pen would
get shorter, and shorter the longer
you wrote with it, a bit like a pencil.
It’s for this reason that the barbs
(feathery bits) at the end of the
quill were often removed! Because
they served absolutely no practical
purpose whatsoever, they simply got
in the way of your hand when you
were writing.
Some of the most famous and
important documents in history were
written using quills. The American
Declaration of Independence. The
Magna Carta. The Bible. Almost every
text that survives from the Middle
Ages to the 1700s. They were all
written with quills.
For all their advantages and the
dierent styles of writing which they
allowed, quills still suered from
the same problems as the reed pen.
Eventually, the hand-cut pen-point
would lose its elasticity and springiness
as it got more and more saturated with
ink due to repeated dipping.
A man carving or sharpening
a quill for writing. Quills
are made of keratin - the
same stuff that makes up your
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A Work of Art:
Illuminated Manuscripts
by Shahan Cheong
ne of the most
images of the
history of writing
is the illuminated
A manuscript is a text
written entirely by
hand. An illuminated
manuscript is such a text
which has been created
with precision and care,
and which has then
been illustrated and
decorated (‘illuminated’)
by an artist.
manuscripts were like
the magazines of the
Middle Ages. Just like
a modern magazine,
the pages were bright,
vivid, overflowing with
colours and gaudy
images, and the letters
were all outlined and
emboldened with vivid
reds, blues, greens and
even gold!
manuscripts were
extremely expensive.
Dyes and pigments to
make the paints and
inks necessary could
be hard to find. The
quills required for even
a relatively simple
piece were likely to
be numerous. In much
the same way that a
professional painter
uses several types of
brushes to achieve
different effects, an
illuminator or scribe
had a variety of quills,
all cut to different
angles and shapes, to
give a range of lines
and writing styles.
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Writing at this time
was a true art-form, but
it could be incredibly
slow. Even writing a
single letter or a few
words could take a
long time. But then,
when you were writing
on one of the most
expensive surfaces
ever imagined…you
wouldn’t want to make
a mistake! Illuminated
manuscripts were
written and decorated
on sheets of vellum –
basically, really really
thin sheets of leather.
Specifically, calfskin
Cows and calves were
hard to come by. As
the animals were more
important alive than
dead, few people were
willing to butcher an
animal purely to get its
skin to write on! On top
of that, each calf would
only yield enough skin
for a few pages.
It’s for all
these reasons
that illuminated
manuscripts were
usually private
commissions. A
manuscript which was
to be prepared and
illuminated would
probably be something
important – a gift to a
wealthy or powerful
person. An important
religious text, a historic
document or an
important record.
An illuminated bible from 1407.
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Writing for a New Age:
The Industrial Revolution
by Shahan Cheong
y the 1600s, more and more people were learning how to
write. It’s estimated that approximately 25% of people in
Britain at the time knew how to read and write. The printing
press, and universities and schools established in the Middle Ages
meant that slowly but surely, the ability to write was being spread to
more and more people. However, despite this spread of knowledge,
the ability to practice this knowledge remained frustratingly slow!
For centuries, quills remained the writing instrument of
choice. Nobody had figured out a way of making a
better pen. It remained this way until at least the
latter half of the 1700s, when the first finicky,
fiddly, handmade metal pens, manufactured out
of pressed steel, were created.
Modelled on the points of quills, these steel
pens had various advantages over the quill. You
didn’t have to keep sharpening it. You didn’t
have to keep cutting new points. But on the
ip-side of the coin, they could wear out and
rust. The inks used could be corrosive, and
would eat away at the metal, making the
points brittle and prone to breakage.
Some people did try to make these pen-points
out of gold, but they were often too expensive
and finicky. It wasn’t until the 1800s, when the
Industrial Revolution had been going for a while,
that the next big step in writing was made!
Mass-produced steel pens could be made swiftly and easily using
simple punch-presses. Thousands could be produced in a day.
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Mass Produced Writing: The Steel Pen
In a quest to nd something better for writing
than the nicky quill, further experiments were
made in the manufacturing of steel pens. The
breakthrough was made in the early 1820s, with
brothers John and William Mitchell.
Prior to the Mitchell brothers, metal pens had
been laboriously cut and bent and shaped by
hand. A frustrating, finicky, fiddly business that
took ages. The Mitchells realised that if they had
the right thickness of metal and the right cutting
tools, they could use a die or a mould to punch
out hundreds…thousands…of pens! The phrase
cookie-cutter’ comes to mind.
Using punch-presses, the Mitchells could crank
out thousands of cheap, identical steel pens
all with a few pulls of a lever! Every single pen
would be identical, and they
could produce as many of
them as they
wanted to!
Once they
had perfected
their mass-
all they had
to do was
the pens in
little boxes
(say 100 pens
for 6d), slap a
label on it, stack up hundreds of these
little cardboard boxes and send them off
to stationery shops all over the world!
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The steel pen caused a revolution
in writing! Although some people
continued to use quills, the fact of
the matter was that the steel pen
was just…better! You didn’t have
to make it yourself, it was cheap, if
it rusted, you threw it out and got
another one, it could be bought in
bulk, and it came in a wide variety
of points for almost any type of
writing! Writing was starting to
speed up!
Along with these newfangled
metal pens came new styles of
writing. Scripts like Spencerian,
Roundhand and Copperplate became
more popular. Without having to
stop and sharpen pen points all the
time, a person could concentrate
more on practical, high-speed
cursive handwriting, instead of
painstakingly writing every single
stroke with a fragile, hand-cut quill.
The steel pen copied more than
just the shape of the quill pen
(which itself had been copied
from the shape of the reed pens
of ancient times), it also copied
some of its physical characteristics
– Steel pens of the 1800s were
manufactured out of thin sheets of
springy steel. This allowed the pen
to flex and bend when it wrote.
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The tines (the two halves of the
pen-point) would flex and spread
as more pressure was added to it,
creating a thicker line, and would
spring back together when pressure
was reduced, to create a thinner
line. It’s this property of steel pens
(and the quills which came before
them), that allowed for the thick-
thin variations in lettering that were
common in manuscripts of all kinds
during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Artisan Instruments:
Glass Dip Pens!
Rivalling the steel pen and the
quill for about 200 years was
another type of writing instrument.
Almost forgotten today, they’re
actually still very popular, still
manufactured, and you can still buy
them! And they’re still made in the
same city where they were invented,
back in the 17th century.
The glass dip-pen!
For centuries, Venice, Italy has
been the centre for the manufacture
of beautiful pieces of artistic
glasswork. Everything from purely
decorative items, to candleholders,
Glass dip-pens are still manufactured today at
the famous Murano Glassworks in Venice, Italy.
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drinkware, bottles, vases, decanters
and countless other items made
of shimmering, hand-blown, hand-
shaped, multi-coloured glass!
One of the items turned out by the
famous glassmakers of what was then
the Venetian city state, was the glass
dip pen!
Manufactured out of one or two
rods of glass, which could be crystal
clear, or which could be dierent
colours (to make it more beautiful),
these pens were painstakingly heated,
melted, turned, stretched and coiled
by hand, using simple tools and the
glassmaker’s own judgement. The
result was a pen, from writing tip to
the end of the shaft, made entirely out
of what would become…a single piece
of glass!
Glass pens of course, lacked the
exible writing nature of quills and
steel pens, but their advantages
were that they were beautiful,
individual, easy to clean, excellent
for basic writing, and they wrote with
unsurpassed smoothness!...as smooth
as glass!
Glass pens also had another
advantage over quills, and even the
steel pens which replaced them – they
could write for longer!
The grooves in the tips of glass pens
could hold much more ink than the
underside of a steel pen, or the hollow
interior of a goose-feather quill. While
a single dip of ink using a quill or steel
pen might get you two or three lines
of script at most, a glass dip pen in one
dip in the inkwell, might give you the
better part of one or two paragraphs!
Why, you might ask, then, weren’t
glass pens immediately used to replace
quills, instead of going onto steel pens?
The simple reason is…money.
Glass pens were (and still are)
handmade artisan pieces. It would
be impractical to try and supply the
whole world with delicate, nely
turned glass writing instruments. A
quick and cheap steel pen, cranked
through a hand-operated punch-press
was much more convenient. And with
schools and universities growing in
prominence in the 1700s and 1800s,
speed and eciency was the order of
the day!
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Writing for
the Common Man
by Shahan Cheong
By the 1800s, literacy was growing ever faster. New mechanical printing
presses, popular novels, newspapers, pamphlets, magazines, brochures
and literary journals were all increasing the amount of materials that one
could hope to read, as well as showing just what could be written about!
In previous times, little progress had been made with writing instruments
because not enough people did enough writing for any serious progress
to be necessary. By the Victorian era, with so much to read about and write
about, advances in writing technology were kind of important!
Handmade glass pens were too expensive and slow to produce in
any signicant quantity for everyday writing (and they were fragile!),
so instead, metal pens took the lead. Handmade at rst, they were
replaced in the 1820s by the rst machine-made, mass-produced steel
pens! The vast majority of steel pens were manufactured in their
millions by a variety of makers operating in the Jewellery
Quarter of Birmingham, in England.
The vast majority of these pens were
made of cheap sheet steel. They were
designed to be written with
until they wore out,
and then simply
discarded and
replaced. Depending
on how much writing
you did, and how well you
looked after a pen-point, it
could last a surprisingly long
time. Weeks or months or
more before it had to be replaced.
More expensive pen-holders were made
of lathe-turned wood with gilt brass
ferrules. The upper-end of cheap.
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Some pens were made of gold. Not just because gold looks pretty and
it’s expensive, but because gold doesn’t rust! Properly formed with a tip of
hard, wear-resistant metal welded onto the point, a gold pen could write
almost indenitely.
Steel Pens and Pen-Holders: From Simplicity to Elegance
From ancient times to the 1800s, a ‘pen’ had been an instrument for
writing or drawing using ink. But what happens when your ‘pen’ is no
longer a long, sti reed, or a hand-cut goose-feather quill? What happens
when your ‘pen’…
your writing
instrument…is a tiny
little steel object, just
under two
inches (about
4.5cm) in
length? How on
earth are you going
to write with something so
small without covering your ngers
in ink?
Well, to make writing with such a tiny object
practical, you would need something to set the pen into
while you were using it! A holder of some sort, and during the
Victorian era, a wide variety of pen-holders for steel dip-pens were
available. However, here it's important to make a distinction.
Today, the entire setup would simply be called a ‘dip pen’, but back in
Victorian times, only the throwaway steel point was called a ‘pen’ (what
today, we’d call a ‘nib’). The shafts into which these pens were inserted,
and which the writer held in his or her hand, were called pen-holders.
Pen-holders, unlike the disposable, uniform, mass-produced steel pens,
varied signicantly in quality and style. They ranged from bog standard,
simple wooden ones, which were almost as cheap as the pens tted into
them, to elegant shafts made of precious metals and materials, which
might be sold in boxed sets.
More expensive pen-holders were made
of lathe-turned wood with gilt brass
ferrules. The upper-end of cheap.
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Institutions such as
schools and universities,
where much writing
likely had to be done on
a budget, the cheapest,
simplest wooden pen-
holders with pressed steel
ferrules were used. Places
with a higher standing, such
as banks, libraries, post-
oces or hotels might have
nicer pen-holders laying
across their desks, to reect
the status of the people who
might use them. Lathe-turned
wooden holders, stained and
polished, with handsome
brass ferrules might be found
here. They would last longer
with the treated wood nish,
and brass wouldn’t rust if it got
into contact with the liquid ink
used at the time.
At the top end of the scale
were pen-holders made of bone,
brass, silver, gold, ivory, and
Mother of Pearl. Holders like
this would come in handsome
presentation boxes and carry-
cases, similar to those used
to transport jewellery. They
were manufactured by famous
stationers, silversmiths, and jewellers
and were available only for the
seriously wealthy! A person owning
such a set might receive it as a
present, a reward, or it may come as
part of a set of something larger (such
as a writing slope).
Pen-holders used in
schools and public
institutions were often
mass-produced, no-
frills wood-and-pressed
steel affairs.
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Pen-Holder and Propelling
Pencil Set. Sterling Silver
and Ivory. Manufactured in
London in 1901 by jewelry
rm Mappin & Webb.
Sterling Silver Pen Holder and Propelling Pencil set. Manufactured by
Sampson Mordan & Co. Ca. 1880, with original silk and velvet-lined
presentation case.
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Mechanical Writing:
The Typewriter!
One of the biggest problems faced
by man through the entire history of
writing was the problem of speed.
With reed pens and quills, writing
quickly had not been possible. The
fragile nature of these natural writing
instruments meant that they were
prone to breakage if used under heavy
pressure. The elaborate scripts of the
time were impossible to write with any
serious speed. In the 1800s, with the
development of the cheap, throwaway
steel pen, which was capable of taking
the heavier pressure of faster writing,
styles like Spencerian were developed,
which were neater, easier to read, and
much faster to write.
But the problem with all these
writing systems, regardless of their
merits, was that they could only go
as fast as a person could write, which
in most cases was not very fast, even
with fancy cursive script! To advance
writing even further, what if there was
a machine which could write for you?
Surely it would be faster, neater and
much less tiring?
In the 1450s, the rst step was
made: the printing press featuring a
press-bed lled with little pieces of
movable type, cast out of metal. Hard-
wearing, reusable, and which could
be set into any arrangement, these
made books, pamphlets, magazines
and other written material far more
accessible to the common man. While
the printing press put the scribes
out of business, they didn’t solve the
problem of speeding up writing. It
was still done with a quill or a steel
pen, and an inkwell.
Eorts to create a writing machine of
some kind have been around almost as
long as writing itself, but few people
had gured out a way of producing a
machine that worked well enough to
produce neat, legible text beyond a
printing press. Several machines were
invented during the second half of the
1800s, but few were practical enough
to be mass-produced.
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In 1865, Rasmus Malling-Hansen
created the “Hansen Typing Ball”,
arguably the world’s first ‘type-
writer’, in that it used movable type
(similar to that found in printing
presses) to write on sheets of paper
(hence ‘typewriter’). The typing
ball was novel, but not especially
practical. Hansen had hit on the
key aspect of a typewriter – the
paper moves while the keys stay
put, but beyond that, he was
rather lost. He hadn’t figured out
how to switch between upper and
lowercase characters, and it was
nearly impossible to see what was
being typed, because the typing
mechanism was in the way! Although
it was commercially produced, it was
never especially successful.
The rst typewriter of a kind we
might recognise today, came out in
1876, and was the brainchild of three
men: Christopher Latham Sholes,
Samuel W. Soule, and Carlos Glidden.
They gured out a more practical
arrangement for what would become
the keyboard. They determined how
the cylinder holding the paper should
move back and forth. They even came
up with the QWERTY keyboard that
we still have today! But they lacked
the money to get the machine o the
ground. So, they sold the idea to a
company called Remington, famous for
making rearms (heard of Remington
ries? Yeah, they made those).
The 1870s and 80s was a boom
time for (sometimes whacky, and
useless) inventions, but the folks at
Remington were looking for ways to
branch out from rearms. They were
already experimenting with sewing
machines. Why not a writing machine?
They bought the idea, and created the
world’s rst practical typewriter – the
Remington Model 1. For the rst time
in history, a person could produce neat
writing faster than a scribe, and more
immediately than a printing press! For
the next century, the typewriter would
be the go-to machine for high-speed
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Writing for
a New Century
by Shahan Cheong
In the 1450s, Johannes Gutenberg
created the movable-type printing
press, speeding up the production of
written material.
In 1876, three Americans created
the typewriter, speeding up word-
In 1880, people were still writing
using steel dip-pens and holders,
and hand-cut goose-feather quills.
Writing instruments which, in
essence, had not changed since the
times of antiquity.
Although writing styles had
changed, in an effort to make
writing easier to read, and faster to
produce, a fundamental problem still
remained in the world of writing.
That of portability.
Every pen up to this point had
been a ‘dip pen’. Reeds, quills and
steel pens all had to be dipped in
a separate inkwell or ink bottle
before they could be written with,
and every reed, quill and steel pen
had to be re-dipped in ink every
few words, over, and over, and over
again. Countless trillions of dips
throughout history, used to write
everything from the Bible to the
works of Charles Dickens.
Efforts to create a pen which did
not have to be re-inked every two
lines date back centuries, all with
limited success, and none which
ever entered mass-production. In
the 1800s, clip-on reservoirs were
sold, which would allow a dip-pen to
write longer with slightly more ink in
the pen-point, held there by surface-
tension, but these would only
extend dips from every two lines, to
every paragraph or two, at best.
The Reservoir Pen
The first steps in producing a pen
which could be carried around in
one’s pocket, and which had its own
in-built ink-supply came about in
the 1880s. And it even has its own
If you believe such things, the story
goes that two men get together for a
business-meeting. One presents the
other with a contract to be signed,
and an early reservoir pen, with which
to sign on the dotted line. At the
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crucial moment, the pen malfunctions,
leaking horrendously and dribbling
black ink all over the contract, ruining
it! By the time the rst man had found
another copy of the document, and
another pen, his client had packed up
and left, to sign his name o to one of
his competitors!
Infuriated by this turn of events,
our young man locks himself away
in a shed and furiously works day
and night until he creates the ideal,
leak-proof reservoir pen! The first
of its kind in the world! He founds
a company, and goes on to create
millions of what today, people call
‘fountain pens’!
The name of this man is Lewis
Edson Waterman.
Well, Lewis Edson Waterman was
definitely a real person, that’s for
sure. But the fanciful origin story
of how he created one of the oldest
writing-instrument companies
in the world, is not! No-where is
this story supported in fact! Not
even the Waterman Pen Company
itself believes it to be true! Lewis
Waterman didn’t invent the fountain
pen, just like how Henry Ford
didn’t invent the motor car, nor
Isaac Singer, the sewing machine.
Waterman, like Ford and Singer,
merely did something, or invented
something, which made the creation
they tackled, more accessible to
more people!
In the case of Waterman, he invented
the three-channel capillary feed.
The big problem with early
fountain pens was that…they
leaked…very badly. Nobody had
figured out how to store ink in a
pen-barrel, and have it drain to
the gold pen point in a controlled
manner which allowed for smooth,
comfortable writing. The ink stored
inside a fountain pen will last
for weeks, maybe even months,
depending on the usage of the pen!
But the pen is useless if the ink
doesn’t flow, or if the ink flows too
freely, which were the big problems
facing early pen-makers. It’s for this
reason that it wasn’t until the late
19th century that a pen with its own,
in-built ink-supply was a possibility!
The basic operation of a fountain
pen can be best described as a
controlled leak. Ink leaks out of the
reservoir, down the feed, through
the nib, to the point, onto the paper.
But the problem with early fountain
pens was that the manufacturers
didn’t understand how this worked.
They didn’t realise that as ink leaves
the pen, air needs to replace the ink,
to balance out the pressure inside
the pen with the pressure outside
the pen!
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Anyone who’s ever punctured a
can of liquid (like condensed milk
or similar) and tried to empty the
contents of the can through that
one tiny hole they made, will know
how difficult it is. The fluid glops
and slops and flops out all over the
place, it’s very slow-draining and
it takes forever to empty. This is
what early fountain pens were like!
The result was huge blotches of ink
being spat out onto the paper, a
disaster! But, if you punch another
hole in the can, the fluid comes
out much faster. This is because air
is rushing in one hole while fluid
rushes out the other, balancing out
the pressure.
Early Fountain Pens
The golden age of fountain
pens ran from the 1900s to the
1950s. It was during this time
that there were literally dozens of
competing companies, all vying
for public attention with new
designs, new styles, better filling
mechanisms and improved writing
characteristics. Owning a fountain
pen – a significant investment in
those days – was considered a
status symbol! But they were not
embraced everywhere.
Institutions like banks, post-offices
and schools continued for many
decades, to use old-fashioned steel
dip-pens. One of the reasons was
cost! Fountain pens were expensive!
Dip-pens were dozens for a few
cents, whereas a fountain pen could
cost dollars! Even in the 1920s and
30s, some schools continued to
teach penmanship, and conduct
standard lessons using
old-fashioned steel
dip-pens and
Waterman’s three-channel capillary
feed allowed the ink in fountain
pens to ow out smoothly, and also
allowed air to ow in at the same
time. For the rst time, this produced
a smooth-writing fountain pen! The
next chapter in the history of writing
instruments could now be written!
which had to be
filled by the class ink-
monitor – a child selected
for this task by the teacher.
Roald Dahl, the famous
children’s author, recalled how
fountain pens were banned in
school and students had to rely
One of the rst attempts at
creating a smooth-operating
fountain pen was the 'double-
feed', shown here on this
antique Swan eyedropper pen
from the 1890s.
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on dip-pens. Anne Frank recalled her
joy at being given a fountain pen for
her birthday by her grandmother,
and taking it proudly to school for
the first time! In her own words,
she said: “Me! The proud owner of a
fountain pen!”
Early fountain pens were unlike
almost any which are manufactured
today. For one, there was a much
greater variety of styles to choose
from. Not just in how the pen looked,
but how it filled, how it wrote, the
type of line it produced…and even
how flexible the nib was!
Selling pens to people who had
grown up using quills and exible
steel dip-pens meant catering to their
writing expectations. Early fountain
pens were sold with ‘exible’ nibs,
which bent and spread according to
the writer’s pressure on the point.
This allowed people to continue
using the cursive writing-styles
which they’d grown up with. Pens
with exible nibs faded away in the
postwar decades and are now quite
rare in modern pens.
The majority of old-fashioned
fountain pens were ‘straight sac’
fillers, where the interior of the
barrel housed a rubber ink-sac,
and a flexible steel pressure-bar.
Operating the filling mechanism
pressed down the bar, flattening the
sac and forcing out the air. Releasing
the filling mechanism created a
vacuum which sucked in ink.
Modern fountain pens almost
exclusively use converters (little
pumps) or ink-cartridges to supply
ink to the pen, although there are a
few companies around today, which
still produce old-fashioned sac-
filling fountain pens as they did back
in the 1920s.
Selling reusable
pocket pens to a
society which for
a hundred years,
had used throwaway
stamp-cut dip-pens,
was challenging.
The original
packaging for
this 1904 Waterman
clearly states: "DO
common practice of
the time.
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The Ballpoint Pen
Fountain pens solved a lot of the
problems which people had with
writing instruments up until that point.
They could write for a long period
of time without wearing out, they
could last almost indenitely, if well-
maintained, and they didn’t leak! But
they still had an Achilles Heel.
Fountain pens, like the steel pen,
quill and reed before it, use liquid,
water-based ink. This smudges if it’s
not been given enough time to dry
properly. Anyone reading this who’s
ever spoken to their parents or
grandparents, and were told stories
of kids being smacked across their
knuckles in school, and being forced
to write with their right hands,
instead of their left hands…will
probably wonder…why?
The reason is that left-handed
writers smear ink across the page
as they write! Training kids to write
right-handedly was a way to prevent
this, back in the days of widespread
dip-pen and fountain pen use. For
centuries, blotting-paper was used
to hasten slow-drying ink, but one
man who found the smudging and
smearing of ink too frustrating, and
who couldn’t use blotting-paper
repeatedly in his work, was to try
and find a way out of this inky,
black-stained mess!
His name is now legendary: Laszlo
Jozsef Biro.
Biro was a Hungarian journalist
in the 1920s. He noticed that the
thick ink used to ink the printing-
plates on presses dried quickly
after newspapers had been printed.
It was no-longer necessary to iron
newspapers at home to dry out the
previously-used, slower-drying ink
(anyone who’s watched the first
episode of ‘Downton Abbey’ will
remember this!).
Introduced in 1921, and for sale at the exorbitant price of $7.00 (!),
the button-ller Parker Duofold was one of the most famous pens of the
Golden Age of Fountain Pens. A Duofold was used to sign the Japanese
surrender in 1945. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his Sherlock Holmes stories
with one. The pen in this picture dates to 1928.
Independent Media Inspiring Minds
Biro was fed up of having to blow
on fountain pen ink, or use blotting-
paper, to dry his writing. He tried
putting printer’s ink into his fountain
pen to see what would happen! It
was a disaster. The ink was too thick
and his pen clogged up, becoming
thoroughly useless!
With his brother Gyorgy, a chemist,
the Biros struggled to come up with
a pen that could use thicker, faster-
drying ink than the fluid inks used in
fountain pens at the time. In 1938,
they filed for patents in France and
England for their new ball-point pen!
The future might’ve looked bright
for the Biro brothers, if the Nazis
hadn’t come to power
When the Second World War started
in 1939, the Biros were in hot water.
As Hungarian Jews, they were on the
black-list of people that the Nazis
were actively hunting down. Together
with a friend, they managed to sneak
out of Hungary in 1941, and escape
all the way to Argentina in South
America. Here, they led another
patent in 1943. Among the rst
people to use the newfangled ‘ball-
point’ pens were pilots!
Pilots of the Argentine and British
air forces (the RAF) were given the
new pen so that they could write
notes in their log-books at high-
altitudes, in aircraft which were
often unpressurised. Air-pressure
is what makes fountain pens work.
The differences in air-pressures at
high altitudes meant that they were
susceptible to leaking horribly when
taken up in an aircraft!
In the postwar era of the 1950s
and 60s, ballpoint pens started
rivalling fountain pens. Ballpoint
pens are cheaper to produce, lower
maintenance and didn’t leak as
badly as fountain pens if things went
wrong. This made them popular. The
main downside of ballpoint pens
are the harder writing-pressures
required to make it work. This makes
them unsuitable for some people,
who stick to fountain pens for
smoother, lighter-pressure writing.
To pilots, ballpoint pens seemed like
a lifesaver, a godsend in writing, but
not everyone embraced ballpoints
when they first came out! Novelist
Graham Greene famously said that
ballpoint pens were useless for
everything apart from filling out
forms while on board an airplane!
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Graphite and Rubber:
A History of Pencils
by Shahan Cheong
or much of history, pens
were unreliable. They leaked,
they dribbled, they required
sharpening, cutting, replacing,
repairing…all in all, not the most
ideal of writing instruments.
What if there was an alternative to
the pen?
For a long time, there wasn’t, until
the mid-1500s.
Graphite, the material found in every
pencil in the world, has been known
about for millennia, but it wasn’t until
the early 1500s, when large deposits of
graphite were found in England, that it
was rst used for writing. Graphite is a
soft, crumbly rock. It leaves nasty grey
streaks on the hands, but shepherds
living in Cumbria, where the graphite
was discovered, realised that if you
wrapped it up in cloth and exposed
a point, it made a crude writing
instrument. They used these chunks of
graphite to mark their sheep, so that
they would know how many they had,
and to whom they belonged.
Due to graphite’s dark grey colour,
it was sometimes called ‘black
lead’ or the Latin-sounding name
‘plumbago’, similar to the actual
metal lead (‘Plumbum’). For some,
the similarities were too much, and
confusion between graphite and
lead caused one man, Abraham G.
Werner, a German geologist, to coin
the term ‘graphite’ for this material,
from the Greek words ‘Graphos’
(writing) , and ‘ite’, indicating a rock
or mineral.
The First Pencils
The problem with graphite is
that it’s very soft. It crumbles very
easily. This means that it’s almost
impossible to carve it or shape it
with ease, or make it small enough
and thin enough to make a practical
writing instrument, at least, not on
its own.
In 1789, French painter Nicolas-
Jacques Conte (1755-1805) invented
the modern pencil.
At the time, France was at war
with Britain because of the French
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Revolution. With a British naval
blockade, there was a serious
shortage of British graphite in
France, and only low-grade French
graphite to fill in the gaps. The
inferior graphite was impossible to
write with because of its crumbly
nature. Conte got the idea of
using this crumbly nature to his
advantage. He crushed graphite
until it was powder, then mixed the
graphite with clay. The clay gave
the graphite the strength that it
required to stay together. It also
allowed the graphite-clay mixture
to be mixed and formed into rods,
which could then be fired in a kiln
to create graphite sticks which were
soft enough to write with, but hard
enough not to shatter prematurely.
By mixing the ratios of clay and
graphite, Conte realised he could
produce different levels of hardness
in his graphite rods. He encased
the finished rods in wood, giving us
the modern pencil, as well as the
different grades of graphite which
come with them.
Mechanical Pencils
The pencil sharpener as we know
it today was not invented until
1847, by Thierry des Estivaux, a
Frenchman. Prior to Monsieur des
Estivaux’s invention, pencils had
to be sharpened by whittling them
down with a pen-knife. This was a
fiddly and imprecise method at best,
which could damage or break off the
graphite point, necessitating further
sharpening, all over again!
What if it were possible to create
a pencil which did not have to be
sharpened? A pencil which could
be carried around in one’s pocket
and which would always have more
graphite stored inside it in case the
tip wore down? And what if, when
that store of graphite was depleted,
instead of throwing out the pencil,
you could just refill it? The pencil
would be long-lasting, and you could
use every last bit of graphite in it,
instead of wasting those few bits at
the end.
Such an invention would surely be
called a mechanical pencil!
With the knowledge of how to create
reliable graphite rods now in place
in Britain, Europe and the United
States, a person who could invent a
superior pencil which did not have to
be sharpened constantly could make
himself a tidy sum of money.
That person was an English
silversmith named Sampson Mordan
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Sampson Mordan's patented propelling pencil, from 1822.
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Mordan observed that pencil-holders
in the early 1800s did just that. They
held the pencil…and did absolutely
nothing else. You still had to sharpen
it. You still had to advance the pencil
whenever it got too short, and it just
wasn’t a practical method of using a
pencil at all!
What if you could eliminate the need
to sharpen the pencil altogether? Why
not just have the graphite rod housed
inside a holder? That might work…but
then, how do you advance the graphite
when it gets worn down?
To overcome this issue, Mr. Mordan
developed what was called the
‘propelling pencil’, the world’s rst
kind of mechanical pencil.
Mordan-style propelling pencils
were made of metal, and could be
unscrewed at the tip. A graphite rod of
the correct diameter and length was
then inserted into the pencil and the
tip was screwed back down.
Twisting the pencil-tip advanced
the feed mechanism inside the pencil
which pushed or ‘propelled’ the
graphite shaft forward, through the
opening in the pencil tip, allowing a
person to write. Once the graphite
wore down, it was simply a matter of
twisting the pencil again to expose
more graphite, over and over until
the graphite was gone. Then pulling
the pencil apart and inserting more
graphite when it was empty.
Cheaper propelling pencils were
made of brass, or Nickel Silver. More
expensive pencils were made of
sterling silver, or solid gold! Just as
how novelty pens can be found in
any cheap souvenir shop today, in the
1800s, some pencil manufacturers
turned out all kinds of novelty
propelling pencils! Pencils could
look like almost anything! Revolvers,
baseball bats, cricket bats, telescopes,
walking-sticks, wine bottles…and
they could operate in almost any way
imaginable – twist-feed, drop-feed,
ring slide…the varieties were almost
endless! Some pencils came with
inbuilt dip-pens, some came with
stones or seals set into the ends where
the owner’s initials could be engraved,
for sealing letters with wax, some came
with rings set into them, so that they
could be attached to a gentleman’s
watch-chain, or to a lady’s chatelaine.
Modern ratchet-and-clutch style
pencils, which use graphite rods in
fractions of millimetres, (0.3, 0.5,
0.7, etc), and which advance these
rods through the pencils with a
simple click, were invented in the
1930s. Developments in America and
Japan advanced pencil technology
signicantly, and for a while, there
were two rival systems to propel
the graphite through the pencil: the
ratchet mechanism as used in the
‘States, and the more old-fashioned
twisting mechanism, used in Japan,
but in the end, the ratchet-click
mechanism won out, because it was so
much easier to operate with one hand.
Independent Media Inspiring Minds
by Shahan Cheong
From cuneiform to cursive script, from
fancy feathers to sleek modern writing
instruments, I hope you enjoyed this write-
up on the history of writing and writing
instruments! But, from writing, what about
reading? Next month, we’ll be looking at
the history of books! Where they came from,
how they were made, and famous books which
have made, and/or influenced history,
science, literature and any other number
of subjects by their creation!
Shahan Cheong
TAT History
The images used in this issue of TAT History came from
public domain websites, Wikimedia Commons, or else
were photographs taken by the TAT History Editor.
Information for this issue of TAT History came from the following sources…
Pictures used in this issue of TAT History came from Wikimedia Commons, were taken by the
TAT History Editor.
Sources used in this issue of TAT History included…
http://www.penhero.com/ - PenHero.com (Accessed 20th of May, 2015)
Documentary: “Illuminations – Treasures of the Middle Ages” (BBC. 2005)
Documentary: “Alphabet – e Story of Writing”. Presented by Donald Jackson
Documentary: “e 26 Old Characters”. Presented by the Sheaer Pen Company (1947).
http://www.ancient.eu/cuneiform/ - e Ancient History Encyclopaedia (Accessed 15th of May,
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