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The ability to read and write has always been one of mankind's greatest achievements. Reading and writing allowed for the recording, protection and spread of ideas, information and new discoveries. But we would never have been able to read about all these great inventions, discoveries and ideas if someone hadn't first discovered how to write them down. So, what were the first writing instruments, and how did they evolve over time?
The first writing instruments were the stylii, that is, sticks which were specially-shaped so as to press wedge-shaped characters into soft wax or clay tablets. Created by the Sumerians several thousand years ago, these stylii and the wedges which they pressed, became the first form of writing, known as 'cuneiform'. By arranging the wedge-shapes by size, distance and design, the Sumerians created the first alphabet and system for writing.
For several years, cuneiform writing was the only form of writing available. From cuneiform, came brush-writing. Brushes with thin tips dipped in inks made from water and natural dyes made from fire-soot, became the first pens. These pens allowed for more a more clearer form of writing than could be produced on wax or clay tablets, by making marks on a type of cloth called papyrus, which was made from reeds. Papyrus is the word from which we get the modern 'paper'. The peoples of some countries (mostly East Asian countries) still use brush-pens today, to write characters in Chinese, Japanese or any other Asian language.
With trade and travel, writing gradually spread around Europe and the Mediterranean Basin. The Sumerians who invented writing, lived in the Mediterranean, so the nearest countries, such as Egypt and Italy and Germany and Greece, were the first places to pick up on this new invention of 'writing'.
The Egyptians created a form of picture-writing known as hieroglyphs, again, using brush pens. While very pretty, hieroglyphs took a long time to write, and they could be difficult to read. It was evident that a clearer form of writing was required, and with it, better tools.
Eventually, people moved back to inks and papers. The Romans kept extensive records of a lot of things which went on in their empire, and to do this effectively, they turned to scrolls of papyrus, and a new kind of pen...the reed. Reed pens were pretty easy to work with. Reeds were sufficient, but constant re-sharpening and cutting made them impractical. Ink softens the reed as you write, and once the reed got too soft, you had to start cutting out another pen-point.
By the medieval period, yet another type of writing instrument had replaced the reed. The quill.
The quill was a feather, a big, primary flight-feather from the wing of a large bird (usually a goose). Quills were plentiful, but they took a while to make.
Because the quill was stronger and stiffer, it could write significantly better than the reed pen. Different ways of cutting the pen-point allowed for different styles of writing. It's at this time that the German Gothic or 'Blackletter' style of writing, synonymous with the Middle Ages, began to appear. By cutting the quill-point a certain way, you could create text with wide up-down strokes, and thin horizontal strokes. It was during this period, that the writing-surface changed from papyrus to vellum (dried animal hides) and eventually to paper.
The quill lasted for several hundred years. Several great documents such as the Bible, the American Declaration of Independence and many classic works of literature from the 18th century, were written with quills. The diary of Samuel Pepys, the famous English naval administrator of the 1600s, would have been written entirely with a quill. William Shakespeare wrote all his plays with a quill. Even though the quill had to be sharpened and reshaped every so-often, much like the reed pen before it, for centuries, it was the only pen that people had. The small knives which we have today which are called 'pen-knives' comes from the period when the quill was king. Your pen-knife was the tool which you used to cut the tip of your pen with. No pen-knife, no quill, no writing.
Quills remained the mainstay of writing for several centuries. The flexible nature of the pen-points, after they had become softened somewhat, with ink, allowed people to create even more styles of writing. The expressive, decorative, loopy, thick-thin styles of handwriting that came about during the 17th and 18th centuries, such as roundhand, Copperplate and Spencerian, were the direct, natural result of the writing properties of the quill.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, a little something called the Industrial Revolution swept through Europe. With the power of wind, water, fire and steam, machines began to be manufactured which could produce all kinds of things. All these new inventions naturally created a lot of paperwork. Mankind needed a better kind of writing instrument to put all the wages and salaries and information down on paper. Then one day, an intelligent man thought to himself that if pen-points were made of something tougher, stronger and which would last longer, he could make a fortune. What if pen-points, instead of being the easily-worn-out tips of feathers, were actually made of something tough and durable...like...metal?
Using steam-powered presses, special moulds and sheets of metal, the first mass-production of metal pens were created, at the end of the 18th century.
The invention of a simple, cheap, durable pen-point which could be made in its thousands revolutionized the writing world. Now, if you wanted to write, all you had to do was go down to the shop and buy a box of pens and a pen-holder
The metal pen caused all kinds of changes in the world. For the first time, cheap, reliable pens were available in their thousands to the masses, which greatly boosted literacy rates and helped to improve education.
While the metal pen allowed for quicker and more comfortable writing, one crucial problem still remained. Portability.
Modern types include ballpoint, rollerball and fountain pen
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