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A Short History of Writing with Ink

          Let me tell you of the many ways in which people have applied ink to paper, to cloth, skins, bones, or wood over the centuries. From the first pointed stick dipped in sap, juice, or blood, and applied to a hide or hip bone, people have looked for a way to preserve their thoughts and words, their dreams and imaginations for the future. This desire to save something of our selves for our loved ones, our tribe, or species, has brought us profound understandings, insights, beauty, poetry, and humor. For thousands of years, this has been done with ink and some tool for that purpose. The ink has become part of our art, and so has the
tools used to apply that art. Here is a short and superficial history of that ink and those tools.
          Ink often carries with it a potential for menace and messiness. It wasn’t that long ago that drawing a long line or sentence without skips, splotches, and smears, was an issue. Messages beyond the words written were expressed in our writing. Look at the Declaration of Independence. You can see where the author began writing by the heaviness of the ink; the thin sharpness of the lines. Look again, and you might see where they ended their writing, and raised their pen from the paper to refresh the ink supply, or the tip. Messes and interruptions were so common that the clean, smooth delivery of ink, and its skillful execution became an art that joined the composition.
          Today we write, we draw, and we type. There you have it. We focus on the product much more than the process. Our interest in the process concerns itself with the value, meaning of what is written; less so, the execution and technique, let alone the legibility of what is hand written. Today the moving finger types; and, having typed, moves on. However, it was not long ago that we discussed the ‘hard down-stroke’, and ‘soft up-stroke’ of this process. We talked about how long a pen, or nib would write before needing an ink recharging, a re-carving because the tip softened, or changing the nib because it had spread or bent. We were concerned with which cut, hair, or metal created the least mess, allowed the most control, and the longest line. But most of all, many of us took pride in the beauty of our calligraphy; our signature for instance.
Cursive writing in not taught in many schools these days. Our children often can’t write a word without lifting their pen or pencil off the paper from letter to letter. Blackboards are white, and the familiar two lines spanning their length with a softer dotted line running down their center have all but disappeared. It use to be that these boards had a permanent cursive alphabet across the top in upper and lower case, and permanent          lines immediately below for teachers to demonstrate technique.

From Wikipedia Commons

From Wikipedia Commons

          John Hancock: Now there’s a beautiful and well known signature.
          Mr. Hancock obviously took care and pride in his calligraphy. The quality of his calligraphy was so significant that his name has come to mean signature: “You can put your John Hancock right here.” “Your John Hancock goes here please.” Even a US naval ship uses the signature on its transom rather than the usual block lettering.

From Wikipedia Commons

          If you look closely at the letter above, authored by Thomas Jefferson in 1787, showing corrections made by Benjamin Franklin, you can see how bold first words are, and how many words were written before the pen needed more ink, or the nib required some shaping and carving with the useof a ‘pen knife’. Look at “mankind requires that they should declare...” in
the middle of the image. It is clear that Jefferson stopped after “mankind”, refreshed the ink, and returned to write “that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. ”.
          There’s an example of ink on paper creating goose bumps for anyone who values freedom, and democracy. You can clearly see how the ink was painted onto the paper, and, I would guess from the looks of it, onto Thomas Jefferson’s fingers as well.
          The reed pen, quill pen, dip pen, and hair brush were our first means of writing with ink. They have been around for so long that the date when they were first used is merely a guess.
          The first use of the more recent fountain pens, ballpoint pens, felt-tips and roller-balls are known; for the most part.
          These newer writing tools solved the problem of an even and lasting delivery of ink, but they dragged the problem of ink stains and messes along with them until relatively recent times.
          Anyone over the age of 50 can remember ink stained pockets and fingers; even the taste if you had a tendency to daydreams and musings while fiddling with your pen. Pocket protectors were common in ‘da day’.

The history of pen and ink:
Where did it all start and where is it heading?

                    • The reed pen - First used in India around 500 BC, but might have been used as far back as 3,000 BC.

          Reed pens were made using a reed straw or length of bamboo. A pointed tip was carved at one end with a groove or slot to carry the ink to the tip. They didn’t hold a tip as long as a quill feather, and were very messy.

                    • The ink, or hair brush - Most likely first used during the Zhou dynasty (1045 – 256 BC), the hair brush might have been used as far back as 3,000 years.

          When we think of writing with a hair brush, most of us think of China and its beautiful pictographic characters. The Chinese invented the hair brush, or “mao bi” in pinyin Chinese (phonetically pronounced mao bee. Mao, as in Chairman Mao, and bee as in honey bee.); mao meaning “hair”, and bi meaning “brush”. The oldest surviving example of a hair brush is a little over two thousand years old, and was uncovered at an archeological
dig in China; of course.
          The Chinese place great favor on what they call the Four Treasures. These include a brush, an ink stick, an ink stone to grind the ink stick in salted water to produce the ink, and the paper: Brush, ink stick, ink stone & paper make up a person’s Four Treasures of which no office or studio would be complete without. The most treasured of all hair brushes would be one made of an individual’s own hair taken when their hair was first cut.
         For those not fortunate enough to have their hair saved for them, brushes would have been made using weasel, rabbit, deer, chicken, duck, goat, pig, tiger... I don’t know where they would find hair on a chicken or a duck, so I conclude that they are using the feather barbs which are made of the same material as hair, or those super thin hair-like feathers found surrounding a bird's excritory component. Imagine looking for hair on a bird that has perfectly wonderful primary wind feathers. That came later, and in a different part of the world.
          Japan also has a history of using hair brushes, but Japan’s history is very short compared to China’s. Japan’s first written chronicle or text was the Kojiki which was written using a hair brush (The first or second decade of the 8th century) putatively around the time quill pens were being used to write Beowolf. The oldest surviving manuscript of Beowolf was written sometime in the 10th or 11th century; using a quill pen.

                    • The quill pen - (First used around 100 BC, but might well have been used along with the reed and hair brush in China, India, and Egypt as far back as 3,000 BC.)

          Quill pens are made using the primary feathers taken from a
bird’s left wing for right-handed scribes and the right wing for
left-handed scribes. The first primary feather is considered the
best, the second and third feathers are good, but inferior to the
first. Swan feathers are the favored feather, but goose is the
most commonly used feather. Feathers from the turkey, crow, hawk, and eagle are also used. Any primary feather from a large winged bird will work fine. Large tail feathers can also be used.


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          The quill pen is still used today, for its beauty, the pleasure, style, and for nostalgia. The Supreme Court of the United States still places quill pens (goose feathers) on the counsel tables. They are symbolic and are usually taken by the visiting lawyers as mementoes of their noteworthy experience.
Preparation of a quill for use as a pen is involved, but
          Preparation is made much easier by using an attachable
metal nib. Whether carved or metal, nibs are the writing tips of
quill pens, dip pens, and fountain pens.

                    • The nib, or dip pen - (The nib pen is the forerunner of the fountain pen. They were first used when replaceable nibs came into production.)

          The nib, or dip pen is a handle or holder for a nib; nibs
being the metal tip used to deliver the ink to the writing surface. Most likely the earliest nib pen handles were made of wood or metal. Today they are used by artists and calligraphers, and are made of wood, glass, bone, plastic, and most any material that the user likes. Nib pens do not have a reservoir of ink, and therefore must be dipped when the ink it is capable of holding runs dry. It is most likely that the fountain pen was an evolution of the nib/dip pen.

                    • The fountain pen - (The first mention of a fountain pen was in 953 A.D. when Ma'a-d al-Mu'izz, the caliph of Egypt, ordered a pen made that would not stain his hands or clothes. It was described as a fountain pen, but there are no surviving drawings, or examples.) Again with the mess.

          Although an attempt to make a fountain pen using two quills,
one for the nib and one for the ink reservoir, was attempted in
the 17th Century, it wasn’t until the 1850s that what we know
today as a fountain pen was mass-produced.
          Lewis Waterman, having experienced poor examples of fountain pens, one that cost him a lucrative contract as a result of its failure, got a patent in 1884 for a pen he designed that worked so well he was able to produce and sell it in great numbers; even
offering a 5-year guarantee on its performance.
          Waterman’s design was adapted and modified over the years, and competitors like Walter A. Sheaffer introduced his version of a lever-filler fountain pen in 1912. Also in 1912 George S. Parker's button-filler grabbed the global market and remained popular until the arrival of the ballpoint pen.
          Fountain pen are archaic for the most part, but one that
continues to be used is the cartridge fountain pen. It was first
patented on May 25, 1827 by the Romanian inventor Petrache
Poenaru. It uses a small cylindrical cartridge of ink that is
cradled like a bullet in the body of the pen.
          As a child in elementary school, I had a cartridge fountain
pen. I loved it. I loved having extra ink ammo just in case of an attack of imagination. It never caused a mess in the area of the cartridge while using or replacing cartridges, but the nib was the same as all the others on the market. It could cause a mess. In fact: A gifted 4th grader wielding one of these could lay down flak of permanent ink across any terrain; be it white shirts, bare arms, or locker doors. I would imagine.

                    • The ballpoint pen (Although it has been argued that Galileo designed a ballpoint pen in the 17th Century, the first patent was issued on October 30, 1888, to John Loud. However, the first successful commercial patent and production was registered on June 15, 1938 by László Bíró; an Hungarian newspaper editor.)

          Like its predecessors, the ballpoint pen’s history began as
one of sporadic ink delivery, messy papers, pockets, purses, and
          Galileo most likely never designed a ballpoint pen. However, John Loud, a leather worker, designed a huge, clumsy instrument intended for drawing patterns on leather, not paper.
          It was László Bíró who deserves credit for what we have today, and he gets that credit throughout much of the United Kingdom where ballpoint pens are generically know as a Biro.
          László Bíró began his venture with ballpoint pens in Hungry,
but got it into full swing in Argentina where, in 1940, he and his
brother had moved in order to flee vicious Nazi insanity. In
Argentina, he patented his design again, formed a company, and
began its production. He was contracted by the British Royal Air
Force to make pens for their pilots who were having problems using fountain pens at high altitude. He had captured the market, but gained attention both from ethical and unethical competitors.
          In the United States in 1945, the company Eversharp and
Eberhard-Faber acquired a license to produce and sell the Biro
design while Milton Reynolds began producing and selling them
without a license.
          It wasn’t until the 1960s that ballpoint pens were produced
that would not leak, or form small globs of ink near the ball. If you look at photos taken in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s you will notice the use of pocket protectors. Pocket protectors were used to protect pockets from the ravages of fountain pens, but the ball point pen had its moments, and needed time to prove itself.
          Today the ballpoint pen is the workhorse of pens used around the world, as well as in outer space.

                    • The rollerball pen - (A recent adaptation to the ballpoint pen.)

          Unlike the ballpoint pen which uses an oil based ink, the
rollerball pen uses a water based ink or gel. This allows for a
smooth delivery of many colors; including glitter suspended in gels
of different colors.

                    • The felt-tip pen - (Here is an actual date and name. The felt-tip pen, along with its family of markers and highlighters, was invented in Japan by Yukio Horie in 1962.)

          Felt-tip pens come in a variety of sizes and ink colors. The
smallest are used as pens, the medium sizes are often used by kids
for drawing and coloring, and the largest sizes, called a ‘highlighter’ are often used to spread a transparent, fluorescent ink over text chosen to be referred to at a later time.

                    • The smartpen - (Livescribe produced its first model, the Pulse, in 2008. In July of 2010, it came out with the Echo.)

          This is a whole other class of animal. It has a small ballpoint pen to deliver ink to a specially prepared paper, but that is where the similarities end. While using this pen you are also placing a series of landmarks that can be synchonized to a recording of a converstion with a client, or a professor's lecture. Later, you can tap the pen on any point of your notes and hear the conversation, or lecture at that point.  These are truly technological wonders. Smartpens represents a great educational and business advantage for anyone owning one. Your school or business notes of the past can be tapped and you can hear the instructor’s statements, or the conversation you had with a client. Information can be shuttled to your calendar by way of Bluetooth.
          Smartpens are as inexpensive as they are amazing. A simple search on Ebay will produce many competative listings.
          The special digital paper they use is also amazing, and can often be printed using your own lazer printer. I could go on about these, but I think you will get the idea best if you simply play the video below, and avoid my further use of the word amazing.


In closing:

          The history of ink application is an interesting one. We will all have our own favorites, and each has something to offer us. As much as I would like to have a digital pen, and the Four Treasures are an inexpensive way to enjoy the art of calligraphy, an enjoyable way to spruce up an office desk, my reason for writing this article was born from my love of the written word, its various delivery systems, and most of all the beauty, art, and fun a pen and quill, and a fountain pen can bring.
          The quill pen is a most delightful and beautiful way to write. It's true that flowers, butterflies, seashells, and dimples, rival feathers for beauty, but a feather is perfect as a pen. Even in an era of computers and printers many of us choose a quill pen, or metal nib and quill, or a fountain pen to write our most intimate and meaningful words; often upon handmade paper.  Imagine the impact of a letter skillfully written using a quill pen upon handmade paper, sealed using a signet ring and scented wax, and then placed inside an envelope made of that same handmade paper. This might be considered corny, even mawkish by some, but I believe it adds a delightful and beautiful significance to the meaning of the message within. It is the meaning of the message, its impact, and beauty that are our ultimate reason for puting so much emphasis on the process.

          And it’s fun.



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