A Brief History of the Pen

A Brief History of the Pen

Humans have been writing and making marks as far back as the caveman. Initially man used his finger by dipping it in plant juices as a drawing and writing instrument. By 4000 BC, bone or bronze tools were used to scratch everyday events on to cave walls.

As language and writing developed there was a need for new improved, more effective tools.

It was the ancient Egyptians who were the first people to write on paper. In around 3000 BC the scribes from ancient Egypt used thick Calamus or Bamboo reed brushes to write on papyrus scrolls. The reed pen was used up until the Middle Ages, although the quill pen had begun to replace it as early as the 7th century.

European monks were to first to realise that goose feather quills were much better than reeds. The hollow quill would hold the ink and the split end worked as a nib. There was real skill needed in trimming the quill and a talented scribe could create some very nice calligraphic effects. The downside to the quill was that it needed constant re-trimming, so it gave it a very short writing life.

The quill was replaced by the metal dip pen in the early 19th century. The metal dip pen had a steel nib with various holes to hold the ink. The nib was attached to a wooden handle, and could be manufactured quite cheaply. In 1803 Bryan Donkin patented a steel pen point but did not commercially exploit his patent, so this left it open to exploitation and in 1830 steel makers in Birmingham, England, pioneered the mass production technique for cheap long wearing steel pen nibs.

The dip pen had to be constantly dipped in ink, which meant it wasn’t long before people demanded a pen that contained a reservoir of ink, the fountain pen.

There were many attempts at creating the fountain pen, most of which failed because the ink flow was very inconsistent. In the 1870’s Lewis Edson Waterman invented his ‘Three Fissue Feed’ system which used an intake of air to control the ink flow. This led to the widespread use of a reliable fountain pen and main the portable pen a reality. In 1894 Parker Pens invented the lucky curve feed system which drained the ink back into reservoir when not in use.

These early fountain pens were called ‘eyedropper pens’ because you had to drip in a day’s supply of ink using the dropper provided. They were prone to leakage, so a new version was introduced by Waterman called the ‘Safety Pen’. The sac filler system soon followed which was much faster and cleaner to fill. In the 1930s the piston filler was introduced by Pelikan and proved immensely popular because it allowed greater ink capacity. All these developments form the basis of the modern day fountain pen.

Now that fountain pens were reliable, people demanded that they were also a fashionable item. In the early days of pen manufacturing, they were made from hard rubber which was available in limited colours and mainly black. In 1924 Sheaffer used celluloid (made from plant fibres) for the first time which meant pens could be made in a large range of exciting colours. Perhaps the last greatest advance in fountain pen technology was by Waterman, who in 1936 invented the disposable cartridge pen.

Then came the ballpoint pen, which was first patented in 1888. It wasn’t until Laszlo Biro’s new patent in 1943 though that the ballpoint pen went into commercial production. The ball pen uses a tiny ball that picks up oil based ink as the pen moves along the paper.

The most recent developments were the felt tip pen in the 1960s by Yukio Horie from Japan and the rollerball pen in the early 1980s, operating like a ball pen but using liquid ink for smoother ink flow.

Peter Lee Greenspan is an art and writing author working for Pullingers and their range of paint pens , brush pens and fountain pens .