The creation of the pen has essentially facilitated the very basis of our civilisation. It is through writing that we have been able to create, share, and learn.
Pens have made it possible to retain and communicate knowledge and information and create works of art. The writings of Shakespeare and Milton wouldn’t exist if they didn’t have the tools to somehow immortalise them physically.
Today, there’s so much choice when it comes to pens. But how did it all start? We’ve taken a look at the history and evolution of the pen.
Who Invented the Pen?
There are several different answers to this question because of the varying types of pens there are available in the 21st century.
However, the first people to invent the pen as a basic tool to write were the ancient Egyptians. The oldest piece of writing on papyrus dates back to 2000 BC. This evidence suggests that they were the first to create a tool that allowed them to make their language tangible and permanent.
To answer the question in more depth and address each particular invention, we’ve put together an in depth timeline of the pen’s evolution:
2000 BC: Egyptian Reed Pen
To write upon parchment and papyrus, the Egyptians created a reed pen. These early pens were fashioned from the hollow, tubular stems of marsh grasses - especially bamboo plant.
One end of this tool was cut into the shape of a pen nib or point and then the reed’s stem was filled with a writing fluid that would flow down to the nib when squeezed.
600 AD: Quill Pen
Of all the writing instruments, the quill pen was in use for the longest period of history - from 7th to the 19th century. Europeans used bird feathers to produce this tool; the best feathers were those taken from living swans, turkeys and geese.
These feathers were then dried with a gentle heat to remove any oils that may interfere with the ink. Next, the end of the feather must be shaped and sharpened with a knife. This was then dipped into an inkwell to fill the hollow shaft of the feather that acts as a reservoir.
These ink pens were durable, but had to be sharpened often. To do this, the writer needed a specific knife, which is where the term "pen-knife" originated. This type of pen actually also changed the way that people wrote. At first, language was written using all capital letters, but as the pen became smoother to use, they developed faster styles, more decorative styles of handwriting with smaller letters.
Source: William Zhang
1822: Steel-point Pen
The reign of the quill ended when John Mitchell from Birmingham began developing a machine-made steel-point pens on a mass scale.
These were still ink pens and functioned in the same way as quill, needing to be dipped into ink, but were sturdier and much less expensive. Their popularity took off and historians believe that by the 1850s half of all dip pens were made in Birmingham. Even the development of education and literacy can be attributed these more accessible writing instruments.
Although this was the point of mass production and popularity for the steel-point pen, archaeologists have discovered metal nibs in Ancient Egypt and bronze pen points in the ruins of Pompeii, dating them back to around year 79.
1827: Fountain Pen
Frustration is the real mother of invention, and that is precisely how the fountain pen came about. The inconvenience of having to keep dipping a pen to replenish its ink supply fuelled the creation of the fountain pen, which holds in a reservoir and passes it through to the nib.
It was first Petrache Poenaru, a Romanian inventor, who received a patent for the invention of the very first fountain pen with an ink barrel in 1827. However, the design was never perfected and had major flaws: the flow of ink was not regulated and resulted in either no ink at all or blotting
It was in 1884 that Lewis Edson Waterman developed and gained a patent for the three-channel ink feed fountain pen. The design ensured a smooth flow of ink during writing, and revolutionised the pen into a portable tool.
Throughout the 20th century, the design underwent a number of innovations, including the use of a replaceable and refillable ink cartridge and range of plastic, metal and wooden fountain pens.
1888: Ballpoint Pen History
The ballpoint pen was a turning point in the evolution of the pen that takes us up to modern day. It was a durable, more convenient writing pen that could write on surfaces such a wood, cardboard and even underwater. At that time during the 19th century, this was a revelation that essentially ended the era of ink writing.
Now the most popular and widely used pen, the ball pen has an interesting history that is first linked to American inventor John H. Loud. Loud received a patent - one of many during the development stages - but yet the design never actually produced a satisfactory flow of ink for the writer.
It was not until a couple of decades later in the 1930s that another attempt at the ballpoint pen is made by Lazlo Biro, a Hungarian journalist living in Argentina during World War II.
As a journalist, he was all too familiar with the annoyance of ink smudging on paper. He came up with the idea to use quick-drying ink instead of the usual India ink and to introduce a small metal ball that rotated. The ball would work to keep the writing pen from drying out and would distribute the ink smoothly.
In 1943, Lazlo and his brother Georg, a chemist, were granted a new patent. They went on to make their first commercial models: the Biro pens - now a household name that has become synonymous with ballpoint pen. The British government would then go on to buy the rights for the pens so they could be used by Royal Air Force crews. They favoured the ball pen since it was a sturdier and could write at high altitudes unlike the fountain pen that would flood under such conditions. The Biro was so successful in the RAF that they became widely used by the military, which brought it to the level of popularity it still has today.
Different Types of Pens
Since these key breakthrough in pen design, each continues to be modified.
For example, the rollerball was only invented by the 1980s by Japanese company Ohto. The rollerball pen is the same design as the ballpoint pen, but instead utilises water or gel-based liquid ink that provides a writing style very similar to the fountain pen.
Fountain pens continue to be used and admired, although these refillable ink pens are often seen a collectors’ items. Some of the most expensive fountain pen ink can cost around £30, but the most expensive fountain pens are around £100,000 - not the sort of thing you want to take to work just for Sarah in HR to accidentally nick it…
Other developments include the modern felt-tipped pen which was developed by the Yukio Hore. These pens are used in many creative environments and renowned for their ability to write on many different surface - these have even been developed into permanent markers or suitable for specific surfaces like CDs.
Even in the era of technology, the pen remains a crucial tool within our society. The act of writing has formed a very unique part of our culture and humanity. The wide range of pens continues to be used in many different facets of life, from the business person to creatives alike.