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A Brief Journey Through the History of Writing Instruments

About 50,000 to 60,000 years B.C., the stone hand axe would have been the first tool to be used by humans in attempting to scratch patterns into stone. Many such scrapers and gravers/burins have been found in caves in Southern France and Spain.

For thousands of years, pictures remained the only mode of communication. Gradually, iconographic writing underwent greater stylisation and developed into pictograms, a type of symbolic writing writing that could be drawn quickly, of which the cuneiform script of the Summerians or the hieroglyphs of the Egyptians are prime examples.

Writing was nonetheless a costly and time-consuming matter performed by well paid full time scribes, who etched their glyphs with gravers or burins made from bone or metal into wax coated wooden slats or moist clay tablets.

Growing demand for written records lead to the desire for more practical writing instruments.

The invention of ink and the use of papyrus as a writing surface represented a great leap forward. The "writing instruments" used at the time consisted of thin rushes whose end pieces were chewed to shape them into a brush. Later a thin piece of bamboo with a sharpened pointy tip was used. It was the birth hour of the first fountain pen.

From the period of the Roman Empire to the modern era the most important writing implement was the quill, which needed to be dipped in ink. The quill was an obliquely cut, sturdy goose feather that had to be repeatedly trimmed, because writing would wear it down quickly.

A veritable quill industry developed over the centuries. At the beginning of the 19th century, approximately 50 million quills were used up each year in Germany alone.

In addition to writing in ink, a new writing technique was established from the middle of the 16th century by the introduction of the lead-pencil writing.

The beginning of the 19th century at last saw the successful manufacture of steel nibs, which was equal to or surpassed the quill's writing quality and were not subject to the same wear.

The steel nibs were placed in wooden holders, but the disadvantage was that an ink reservoir needed to be carried along at all times. It was therefore not surprising that innumerable attempts were made to append an ink reservoir to the actual nib holder, which was achieved in the middle of the 19th century by a number of Germany, English and American inventors.

However, the first and truly useful solution was offered by L.E. Waterman in 1884, when he integrated an ink feed mechanism between the tank and the nib which ensured that the tank would release only as much ink as was needed at a given time, while the same amount of air was fed back into the tank.

Competition to the fountain pen arrived in the 1930's with the invention of the ballpoint pen, whose real breakthrough however only came about in the 1950's. Because it had the advantage of being able to write for a very long time without constantly needing refilling, coupled with the fact that it was leak-proof and that its ink-paste dried quickly once applied to paper, it soon became the preferred writing instrument worldwide.

In our era, the ballpoint pen was followed by the ink roller, which is structurally similar to the ballpoint pen but uses liquid ink rather than viscous ink-paste and thus allows for a smooth and flowing writing action.

Followed by the invention of the typewriter that allowed us to put easily legible and standardized writing on paper at high speed, we now share our lives with the computer and hand-held devices whose programs are constantly being refined. Today, computers write when and what we speak to them and independently translate into various languages.