bamboo and feather to brush and steel

Writing instruments vary according to the writing surface they are most suited to.

Bamboo and reed

reed pens image

Reed pens

The Egyptians used reeds for brushes and pens. The stem of the plant was chewed or hammered to fray it and to form bristles. The same reeds could also be cut and used as pens, and documents on papyrus – which was ideally suited to this type of writing and painting – can be seen which used both methods. Illustrations were painted with the brush and the lettering executed using the pen.

Any fibrous plant that could be chewed to form bristles could be used as a brush.

Bamboo and reed pens were cut in the same way as a feather quill.


Stylus image

Stylus for use on wax or clay tablets

A stylus was made of ivory or iron and used on wax and clay tablets.  The Romans also used lead on beeswax tablets. One end was sharpened to inscribe the letters and the other end was flattened – or chisel-shaped – in order to smooth over the writing, especially on wax, so that the surface could be used again.

The Sumerians use wedge-shaped styli pressed into clay to form the wedge shapes seen in cuneiform.


Quill pen image

Quill pen with barbs cut away and nib cut to shape

The Latin word penna, meaning feather, gives us the modern word for pen.

The flight feathers of geese, swans, ravens and even peacocks have been used. The shaft of the feather is dried and hardened and the barbs of the feathers removed completely. The inside of the shaft is scraped out to leave a hollow tube that will hold ink. The capillary action of the hollow shaft draws ink up but they need repeated dipping as they do not hold much. The nib is cut with a ‘pen’ knife (it’s where the name comes from) and trimmed now and again when the nib wears down.

Lindisfarne Gospels image

Detail from the Lindisfarne Gospels

Feather quills are ideally suited to use on vellum.

The fine point makes a groove on the surface and leaves the ink in its ‘trough’. In this way the illustrators of manuscripts of The Book of Kells and The Lindisfarne Gospels (among others) were able to draw such fine lines that a magnifying glass is required to see them properly.

When the nib is cut with a square end it forms the thick and thin lines we are familiar with from the calligraphy pens of today.

Steel pen

early fountain pen image

Early fountain pen 1867

Metal pens were made as early as Roman times and a steel pen was manufactured in France by 1700AD. They were expensive and exclusive at the time and it would be some years before they became affordable.

They became more popular when the manufacturing was refined and the quill pen (which needed constant sharpening and recutting) started to fall out of favour. The manufacture of paper also played a part as it was cheaper to produce than vellum and parchment and is a smoother surface to write on with a steel nib.

The nib was (and still is) set on the end of a hollow barrel into which ink is drawn. The modern fountain cartridge pens are not too dissimilar to the early steel pens of the 1800s.

Biro and modern pens

biro image

Components of a modern ballpoint pen

In 1938 one Laszlo Biro patented a new invention – the biro. He noticed that the ink used in printing dries quickly thus lessening the chances of smudging. He used the same ink and developed a  new pen tip – the roller ball – to pick up the ink and transfer it to the paper.

Today we take it for granted that we can pick up many styles of pen. We probably give little thought to where they come from and how they are made. But modern pens are really no different to their ancient counterparts. Felt-tip pens are not too different to the reed brush of its day and fountain pens are very similar to a quill pen and early steel pens. The principles used are still the same.

Writing surfaces →