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Early History

At the dawn of civilisation Man's earliest writing may have been by using his finger as a pen with the 'ink' being plant juices or even blood. The first stage of progress being around 4,000 BC when Man scratched the surface of moist clay tablets with a bronze or bone tool. These were primitive societies, although the Romans by 1300 BC had developed this form of writing to the extent that they scribed into thin sheets of wax, which could be melted and re-used. (An early example of re-cycling?)

However as the dictionary definition of a Pen is 'a tool for writing or drawing with a coloured fluid such as ink' these scribing tools have to be excluded and the earliest ancestor of the pen was probably the brush made from Camel or Rat hair, used by the Chinese in the first millennium BC. About the same period, 500 - 300 BC, the early Egyptians employed thick Calamus or Bamboo reeds with split, frayed or carved ends obtaining them from Armenia, Cairo and Alexandria. Their development and use of pens had to run in parallel with the development of writing surfaces and here the Egyptians were successful in turning Papyrus reed into thin sheets thus accepting fine lines of coloured liquid. Much modern knowledge of early Egyptian history comes from the pen written papyrus held in modern museums.

After the fall of the Roman Empire Monks throughout Europe needed to produce copies of the Christian Church's religious documents. Printing had not been invented so the work had to be performed by hand, but the Monks no longer had access to reeds of the right quality. On one occasion one of them must have noted the similarity of the quill of a moulted Goose feather to reeds and learnt to split and shape the hollow end. The hollow quill held the ink and the split end was the nib, writing pressure giving thick and thin strokes. The writing life of the quills was extremely short and they needed constant re-trimming. A sharpening tool was developed and improved eventually becoming the modern pocket cutting tool - the Pen Knife. Each bird supplied just 10-12 good quills. After plucking and sorting one technique was to bury them in hot sand to dry off and become hard. Other finishing processes involved hardening in acids or alum.

There is a specific reference to a Quill pen in the 7th Century writings of the Spanish theologian St. Isidore of Seville but pens fabricated from bird feathers probably date from much earlier.

Quill Pens were the writing instrument from 600 to 1800 AD and were of such importance that it is said that geese were specially bred by the US President Thomas Jefferson to supply his own vast need for Quills. At one point Saint Petersburgh in Russia was sending 27,000,000 quills a year to the UK. Reeds and Quills both exhibited the problems of holding little ink so they needed re-dipping frequently after every few words and wearing away quickly.

Writing with quill pens changed little until the mid 19th century when metallic pens and pen nibs took over although again metal nibs have very early origins in that a pen with a bronze nib was found in the ruins of Pompeii so such instruments had to be used in classical times as they pre-date 79 AD. Other references are 'brazen' (bronze?) pens in 1465, and the 16th century Spanish calligrapher Juan de Yciar's 1548 Writing Manual mentioning Brass pens for very large writing. The wealthy had Gold and Silver nibbed pens in the 16th Century, often giving them as gifts but it is uncertain if these were truly writing pens. The nibs were curled at the upper end in an attempt to charge the nib with more ink giving an increased writing length between dipping.

There is a reference in the Old Testament Book of Job to an 'iron pen'.

Samuel Pepys diary for 5th August 1663 reads :- "This evening came a letter about business from Mr. Coventry, and with it the silver pen he promised me to carry inke in, which is very necessary." Items such as this were individually hand crafted by skilled craftsmen and were expensive and out of reach of ordinary people.

An English engineer Bryan Donkin patented a steel pen point in 1803 but did not commercially exploit his patent and in 1830, steel makers (William Joseph Gillot, William Mitchell, James Stephen Perry) mainly in Birmingham, England developed the mass production technique for cheap long wearing steel pen nibs. Tempered steel sheet was stamped to produce the basic nib then shaped, slit and the tip formed. A technique which continues to today. Far more than most other metals, stainless steel has the elasticity needed to achieve the variety of penmanship styles available from the quill pen.

By 1850 quill pen usage was fading and the quality of the steel nibs had been improved by tipping them with hard alloys of Iridium, Rhodium and Osmium. Very occasionally nibs were tipped with precious stones.

Free public education for children emphasised the teaching of writing skills rather than learning the art of quill cutting which hastened the demise of the latter.

Fountain Pens

The true Fountain (ink storing) Pen didn't appear until the late 18th / early 19th century. No one knows when the idea of adding an ink reservoir to a quill pen originated. However in her Memoirs written in 1748 Catherine the Great of Russia refers to her 'endless quill'. Was she referring to one of the first pens?

The period 1880 to 1900 saw a proliferation of fountain pen inventions from the world's inventors, many were not practical but over 400 Patents were granted.

However the first practical fountain pen is credited to Lewis Edson Waterman a 45 year old American insurance broker in 1884. The story goes that he was getting ready to sign a vital contract on a building site and had bought a new fountain pen for the occasion feeling that it would create a good impression and be more convenient for the circumstances than the more usual dip nib pen. The contract was on the table, and the pen was in the client's hand. Once, twice and even a third time the pen refused to write and then it made an ink blot on the important paperwork. Mr. Waterman returned to his office in all haste, obtained a fresh contract and returned to the site - a rival broker had beaten him to it and the client had signed a contract with the competitor.

Waterman refused to be caught out again in like fashion and having an inventive mind designed his own fountain pen and commenced to produce them in his brother's workshop. His design was based upon the physical force of capillarity where air replace the ink used giving a smooth, even, blot free flow. His idea was patented in 1884 but he continued to sell insurance while manufacturing just a few hundreds pens per annum. However Waterman saw the benefits of advertising and sales increased rapidly. Gold nibs were obtained from New York and in 1900 a factory was built in Montreal, Canada to make the pens.

Lewis Waterman died in 1901 but his son Frank took over the successful business and conquered Europe with sales rising to 350,000 units per annum. Another first for Waterman was adding a clip to the cap in 1905. It was still slightly impractical as the ink had to be charged into the pen via a glass eye dropper. Lever filling to a rubber sac was offered first in 1913.

The potentially messy process of refilling fountain pens with liquid ink from a bottle was resolved in 1927 when the ink cartridge was invented by a Waterman Director M. Perrand. He put the ink into a small glass tube with a cork stopper. The concept was patented in 1935.

Fountain Pens held sway for the first half of the 20th Century as day to day writing implements as well as luxury gift items. Models encrusted with precious metals, embedded jewels, barrels made from Jade and limited edition Tiffany models were available. However the advent of the Ball Point pen started the demise of the Fountain pen. Today they have formed a niche in the writing instrument market with significant sales but which are a small percentage of total writing instrument sales.

Currently the most expensive fountain pen retails for 24,995 including VAT!

The Finish

Ball Point PensEveryone knows the story of the humble Biro, or think they do, because it is more complex than generally appreciated.

The principle of the Ball Point pen is that within the writing tip a metal ball housed in a socket rotates freely and rolls quick drying ink onto the writing surface. The writing ball being continuously fed by ink from the reservoir which generally is the pen barrel or a tube within.

This principle of the ball point pen actually dates from the late 19th Century when Patents were taken out by John Loud in 1888 for a product to mark leather and in 1916 by Van Vechten Riesberg, however neither of these Patents were exploited commercially. Should they have been then we wouldn't have heard the cry 'Has anyone seen my Biro' but instead 'Where's my Vechten Riesberg got to?'

Commercial models were in use from 1895 but had a number of failings, the first satisfactory model to overcome these problems was patented (498,997) by Ladislao (Laszlo) Josef Biro, a Hungarian living in Argentina. Laszlo was a Hungarian journalist and has said that the idea of a pen using a quick drying ink came to him while visiting a print shop. He saw how fast the ink dried and vowed to use something along the same lines in a new type of pen. An ordinary nib would clog up with a thick ink so he worked on the idea of a tiny metal ball rotating in a housing full of this ink.

In 1940 he had to flee from the Nazi, first to Paris then to Argentina in South America where he, and his Chemist brother Georg, took out a fresh patent on 10 June 1943 and made the first commercial models. The rights to this patent were bought by the British Government, as Laszlo's pens were ideal for RAF Aircrew use. Not only were they more rugged but wrote at high altitudes with the consequent reduced pressure, whereas fountain pens flooded. The ball point pen is more rugged than the fountain pen which may be why sales rocketed during World War II when the Military needed robust writing implements to survive the battlefield environment.

Commercially ball point pens were sold first in Buenos Aires in 1945 by Eterpen Co. However Biro had forgotten to get a US Patent so he lost any monopoly on the giant North American market. In the US, Biro's pen was sold as 'The first pen to write underwater' this must have been an unsatisfied demand as some 10,000 were sold at the launch at Gimbel's department store in New York on October 29th 1945. Britain wasn't far behind with the first pens available to the general public being sold at Christmas 1945 by the Miles-Martin Pen company.

Early pens were expensive with the writing point an integral part of the pen body, so failures necessitated replacement of the complete pen. It was not until 1953 that the first inexpensive Ball Point pens were available when the French Baron, Bich, developed the industrial process for manufacturing ballpoint pens that lowered the unit cost dramatically.

The highly popular modern version of Laszlo's pen, the BiC Crystal, has daily world wide sales of 14,000,000 pieces.

Fibre Tip Pen

Although the original Fibre Tip pens were used in the 1940's with coarse wool felt tips these were little more than crude applicators of ink being predominantly used for labelling and artistic work. Invention of the modern Fibre Tip pen as we know it is credited to Yukio Horie of the Tokyo Stationery Company in 1962. The product was ideally suited to the strokes of Japanese 'picture' writing, which is traditionally produced with a pointed ink brush. The pens had lower viscosity inks than Ball Point pens and this ink flowed more easily and were available in brighter colours.

The products have developed in many ways since that time with tips made of fine nylon and other synthetic fibres ground to a point. The ink is fed to the tip from a soft fibrous reservoir being drawn by capillary forces. These same forces pull the ink out onto the surface e.g. paper, to be marked.

Other tips which have been developed include in 1973 a variation on the Ball Point pen where ink is drawn from the fibrous reservoir by a tip which then feeds the ink to the rear of a writing ball, which subsequently rolls it onto the paper. These are usually referred to generically as Roller Ball pens.

In parallel to the development of Fibre Tipped pens a wide range of Fibre Tipped Markers have been developed. Generally these are just larger versions of the pen products with tips up to an inch in width. As well as water based inks for colouring and permanent inks for indelible marking, inks are produced for writing on white boards which can be removed with water or a dry tissue.

Specialist version of Fibre Tip pens and markers encompass products which will detect forged currency and security mark property. There is even a pen with a diamond tip which will produce a permanent mark on steel, plastic or glass by scratching or marking into the surface. This of course does really bring us back full circle to how it all began those many thousands of years ago...