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The history of pens

The history of pens

The earliest form of pen was used by the Chinese in the first millennium BC. It took the form of a brush made from camel or rat hair with the ‘ink’ being either plant extracts or even blood. At around the same time (500-300 BC) the Egyptians used reeds of bamboo with frayed edges, and wrote on thin sheets of papyrus - an early form of paper.

After the fall of the Roman Empire there was demand for Christian documents to be produced and distributed across Europe. These scriptures all had to be produced by hand but the monks did not have access to the quality reeds that the Egyptians had at their disposal. However, they noted that goose quills resembled the reeds and the monks soon learnt to split and shape the tip to form a nib. The hollow quill held the ink and the pressure of the stroke on the parchment dictated the thickness of the line. Unfortunately the lifespan of a writing quill was all too short and the nib required constant re-trimming; the knife used for this process is believed to be the ancestor of the modern day pen knife. A single goose could provide 10-12 quills and there were several techniques for preparing the tip, ranging from burying in hot sand to dipping in acid or alum.

Between 600 and 1800 AD, quills were the chief instrument used for writing, so much so that geese were specially bred for that sole purpose. At its peak, Russia was sending 27 million quills per year to the UK alone. Despite the fact that quills held very little ink and required frequent dipping, they changed very little until the mid 19th century.

Interestingly, a pen with a metal nib was found in the ruins of Pompeii and the Old Testament refers to an ‘iron pen’. Furthermore, brass pens are mentioned in the writings of the 16th century Spanish calligrapher Juan de Yciar, however, these hand-crafted pens were so expensive they could only be afforded by the extremely wealthy.

It wasn’t until 1803 that Bryan Donkin, an English engineer, patented a steel pen. In 1830 mass production of cheap, long wearing steel pen nibs began at a steel works in Birmingham - stainless steel was relative soft and therefore easy to shape and similar techniques are used to this day. By the mid 19th century the use of quills was fading and this was hastened by the invention of fountain pens. These were the first pens to store ink, but it is unclear where the idea first originated. The first practical fountain pen was credited to the American insurance broker Lewis Edson Waterman in 1884 with a design based on capillary action. Air replaced the stored ink resulting in a smooth flow and more importantly, no blots. Lewis believed in his idea but continued to sell insurance, manufacturing just a few hundred pens per year. Upon his death in 1901, Lewis’ son Frank took over the business, broke into the European market and increased sales to 350,000 per year. In 1905, he also came up with the idea of adding a clip to the cap - nice one Frank!

Refilling fountain pens was a messy game until, in 1927, a Waterman director patented the first ink cartridge in the form of a glass tube with a cork stopper. This ensured fountain pens remained a functional product and gift item throughout the 20th century and are still a popular choice of pen today.

Then along came the Biro or should we say, Mr. Biro. The concept of a ball point pen was used in 1916 by Van Vechten Riesberg but he never exploited his idea commercially. Big mistake! Having seen how quickly printer’s ink dried, the Hungarian journalist Laszlo Josef Biro set about manufacturing a pen that could use similar, quick drying, thick ink. His brainwave: a tiny metal ball, freely rotating in a socket fed by a reservoir of ink. The first commercial models were patented in 1943 and the rights were bought by the British government as the pens were ideal for, would you believe, the RAF! Apparently at high altitudes fountain pens flooded.

Ball point pens were first sold commercially in Buenos Aires in 1945 and were marketed as ‘the first pen to write underwater’ - you never know when you might need one. These early pens were still expensive and it wasn’t until 1953, when the price was dramatically reduced, that they became widespread. The current version of Laszlo’s pen (the BiC Crystal) has world sales of 14 million every day!

The creation of modern fibre tipped pens is credited to Yukio Horie of the Tokyo Stationary Company in 1962 and were ideal for Japanese ‘picture’ writing. Modern fibre tips now use synthetic fibres ground to a point, with the ink stored in a soft fibrous reservoir. In 1973, ball point pens were crossed with fibre tip pens and out popped the roller ball pen. Today not only is the pen high tech but so is the ink; permanent markers have been developed which means that you can leave an indelible mark on pretty much anything you want.


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