Sitting at a computer, it can be hard to imagine how humanity got to this point – how did a group of cavemen grunting and drawing wooly mammoths on cave walls become a group of angry relatives grunting and writing angry Facebook posts? The history of communication, and the development and evolution of writing instruments begins long before any of us were alive.
Sharpened stones, which were the writing tool of choice for cavemen, are widely considered the first writing instruments. Rather than writing letters and poems, however, the crude illustrations associated with cavemen represented everyday events – farming and hunting victories are two common examples. Eventually civilization progressed, and cave walls began to show their pitfalls.
As record keepers began developing symbols to represent words and phrases, a more portable means of communication was needed. Enter the clay tablet. Dating back to 8,500 B.C., merchants began using these tablets to represent quantities needed for trading and shipping. As symbols developed and became more complex, the first alphabet replaced pictographs between 1700 and 1500 B.C.
The Greeks are credited with creating the first example of writing with a pen and paper; using a stylus made of metal, bone, or ivory, scribes placed symbols on wax-coated tablets. Across the globe, other civilizations began using primitive writing utensils as well – early Egyptians, Romans, and Hebrews used papyrus and parchment paper. The Romans also created an early predecessor of the fountain pen by filling bamboo and marsh grass stems with writing fluid or ink.
The longevity of this early fountain pen was no match for the quill pen, however. Introduced around 700 A.D., feathers from geese, swans, crows, and even hawks were fashioned into writing utensils and dipped in ink. Quills had their disadvantages, though. A lengthy preparation time and inability to last a long time left inventors and writers alike looking for alternatives.
The invention of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press allowed for the widespread distribution of paper goods such as manuscripts and books; this coincided with the evolution of various handwriting techniques, such as the Italian “running hand” (cursive.) As paper, ink, and handwriting evolved, the need for better writing equipment rose. Early attempts at fountain pens, such as Baltimore shoemaker Peregrin Williamson and British inventor John Scheffer were unsuccessful. Although John Jacob Parker invented the first self-filling fountain pen in 1831, it was plagued with design flaws.
Enter Lewis Waterman, and his 1884 fountain pen. Widely considered the first practical, mass-produced fountain pen, it gave writers the ability to carry around a pen with its own ink supply. Although early fountain pen models were plagued with spills and other pitfalls, the design emulated the hollowed out reeds and quill pens of previous generations.
With any new invention, a sea of copycats and imitations follows the initial discovery. Fountain pens were no different – but in this case, inventors had an opportunity to improve and tweak Waterman’s design. Patented in 1905 and introduced by the Parker Pen Co. in 1913, the “button filler” allowed for easier access to the ink reservoir. The lever filler, click filler, matchstick filler, and coin filler were soon to follow, and gave pen connoisseurs the opportunity to test different ink-filling mechanisms.
Around 1950, an ink cartridge was introduced that was disposable, pre-filled, and made of glass or plastic. Although this invention was popular from the get-go, a new advancement overshadowed its success – the ballpoint pen.
Hungarian journalist Laszlo Biro invented the first ballpoint pen in 1938. Seeing how the ink on newspaper pages dried quickly, Biro decided to make a pen with a similar material; allowing for a quick drying, smudge-free writing experience.
Two companies, Reynolds and Eversharp, aimed to take the ballpoint pen market by storm. Their dreams were dashed, however, due to low quality and customer satisfaction. For most of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, the ballpoint pen trend seemed to be a fad, and fountain pens surged in popularity once more. The asking price for a ballpoint pen dropped from $12.50 to less than a dollar due to high advertising costs and low quality products.
In 1954, the Parker Pen Co. introduced the Jotter, a ballpoint pen that wrote five times longer than other pens on the market, and had a variety of point sizes. In less than a year, Parker sold 3.5 million units. In 1957, Parker also introduced a popular tungsten carbide textured ball bearing in their pens. By this point, Eversharp was in deep financial trouble due to plummeting sales and sold their pen division to Parker Pen Co. Eversharp’s shares eventually ran dry in the 1960’s.
Although the 1940’s and 1950’s were a turbulent time for ballpoint pen manufacturers, French company BIC began selling pens around 1950. By the late 1950’s, BIC held 70 percent of the European market – in 1958, BIC bought 60 percent of New York based Waterman pens; ultimately buying the company in 1960. By this time, BIC was selling ballpoint pens in the United States for anywhere from $.29 to $.69. Today, BIC dominates the market – the BIC crystal pen sells millions of units per day.
Rollerball pens were first introduced to market in the 1980s. This instrument uses a mobile ball and liquid ink which is supposed to produce a smoother line than the ball point pen and be easier to control than the traditional fountain pen.
Simply put, although we take our writing utensils for granted, there was a time when sharpened sticks were the tool of choice. Overlooking the lengthy and complex history of writing utensils is a fallacy – every time you pick up a pen, you are holding thousands of years of human ingenuity in your hand.