06 April 2021

Flowing Ink - A History of the Humble Pen

Alongside the printing press, the pen is probably the most important invention in the progress of human knowledge and communication. From the quill to the rollerball, human endeavours have been scribed since at least 800 B.C.

Our love of pens starts at an early age. From the excitement of receiving a fresh, coloured pack of felt tip pens to winning our pen licence (permission to graduate from pencil to pen in UK schools), pens represent artistic freedom and the grown-up realm of the written word. Despite the ever-increasing presence of screens in children's lives, pens are still incredibly popular, but what are their origins and why are they have endured the rise of the mouse and keyboard?

History of the Pen

The history of writing is complex and fascinating, with different alphabets emerging simultaneously in Greece, Egypt, China and Mesopotamia as early as 4000 bc. The earliest form of writing may have been etched on to clay tablets (cuneus) with a rudimentary wooden stylus. Ironically, the stylus has made a comeback with the digital screen bringing us full circle. As writing progressed, the Egyptians began to shape bamboo and reeds to form rudimentary nibs that were shaped and slit. This slit enabled the reed to retain ink, and the prototype of the contemporary pen was born. Educated, skilled scribes crafted the pens, so they were not accessible to ordinary people. They were also non-durable, required lots of ink and became blunt quickly. Innovation was needed if written communication was to one day reach the masses.

The Quill

The quill is perhaps the most romantic writing implement in history. The long white goose feathers, visions of poets writing by candlelight. The feathers were cut to size, and a nib with a 70-degree angle was shaped to carry the ink. They were lighter and easier to use than a reed, producing more refined and precise writing. The quill was more durable as the writer could trim back and re-shape the nib using a penknife. The quill was not a very democratic writing tool. It was slow, messy and not very portable. It slowly lost favour during the 19th Century with the advent of the industrial revolution. When the production of metal soared, and mass literacy demanded a contemporary tool.

The Fountain Pen

The fountain pen's invention was driven by the desire for a portable tool that did not need to be dipped in ink; a cleaner tool that did not leave the writer with inky fingers. It took from 10th Century Africa to 19th Century Europe for anything resembling a modern fountain pen to emerge.

Many patents were awarded all across Europe and America until pens with a smooth ink flow and durable nibs entered the market. Early models still needed to be filled with ink, and leakages were a common occurrence. It wasn't until the late 19c that cartridges made their first appearance, made from glass and copper wire, they liberated the writer from the dipping pot for the first time.

Well, writing comes from the heart. If we can help the hand to perform the task, what is so wrong with that? Laszlo Biro

The Ballpoint Pen

The pen's progress is the progress of science and technology and a consequence of rising literacy worldwide. Fountain pens were too expensive for most pockets and still quite messy, enter the most influential inventor in the history of pens - Hungarian Journalist Lazlo Biro. Just like Google evolved from a product name to a verb, the name of this specific pen has become the generic term for the humble ballpoint pen. Quick-drying ink delivered not by a metal nib but by a tiny ball bearing. In 1944, Bich bought the company, and the rest is history. Bic now sells dozens of pens a second, making the ballpoint pen one of the most iconic objects of the 20th Century.

Lazlo Biro and his original ballpoint pen plan

The Art and Science of pens in the 21st Century

As the digital world encroaches on every aspect of our lives, analogue is making a comeback. We crave tactile, well-made objects to enrich our lives whilst paying attention to sustainability. Plastic pens take over 100 years to decompose, posing the same risk to the environment as the plastic bag.

Ballpoint pens can be cheap, disposable and unattractive, but there is a renewed appetite for the pen as an object of status and desire, and the sale of high-end fountain pens has rocketed over the last few years, with brands like Montblanc, Sailor, Nakaya and Lamy producing beautiful objects fusing cutting edge technology with beautiful design. These pens are made to last a lifetime, treasured items that can be passed on not thrown into landfill.

But not all ballpoints are the same. Caran D'ache, established in Geneva in 1915, manufacture durable, sustainable, refillable pens using high precision engineering and design. Ballpoints do not have to be disposable, if you pay a little more you can have a personal pen for life.



Rather than shy away from the mess and skill involved with using ink, calligraphy is making a resurgence, and the pen is once again not simply a functional tool but an artist's implement. We are perhaps writing less, but we are learning to write more carefully, slowly and beautifully.