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.