Pens: A History

I love pens.  I absolutely adore pens.  Gel pens are my favorite, specifically the Muji gel pens that I discovered while living in London.  They were cheap, came in lovely colors, and were so nice to write with.  I used to have a pen blog, where I’d post about my favorite writing and stationary products.  I would visit stationary stores, and pick up pens, all in the name of research.

Lazlo-BiroI wanted to know a little bit about the history of pens, and I finally figured out why people in England call them “biro’s.”  The inventor of the modern ball point pen was Laszlo Biro, a journalist who noticed that the print used in newspapers dried much faster than the ink used with fountain pens, so he decided to try to replicate that experience.  Working with his brother Georg, a chemist, they developed the first ball point pen (at the opening sale in Gimbels department store in NYC they were marketed as “the first pen to write under water” and 10,000 were sold).

That was in the 1940’s.  The earliest pens were reed pens used in Egypt to write on papyrus scrolls.  The Romans wrote on thin sheets of wax with a metal stylus, and when the writing was no longer needed, they’d rub it out with the flat end of the stylus.  The same type of stylus was used during the Middle Ages when scribes would write in notebooks of wax.

For 1200 years, the main writing was done on parchment was done with quills.  In the 1790’s pencil lead was discovered independently in France and Australia, which is really random.  At the same time, a metal point was invented to use with liquid ink, so that by the 1850’s, most people were writing with what we would recognize as a pen.  The first inexpensive ball point pen was created when a French Baron, Bich, developed a way to manufacture ball point pens cheaply.  They would become Bic’s.

Not surprisingly, a lot of pen development has been going on in my lifetime.  The felt-tip pen predates me by about 10 years, but I came of writing age as rollerballs were being developed.

pilotMy favorites, gel pens, were invented in 1984 by Sakura.  I remember the first time I wrote with the G2 Gel Pen, in the spring of 2000, though clearly I was a latecomer to them, as they were first marketed and launched in 1993. Oh, the wonder with which I beheld that mighty pen.  It was amazing!  I had a notebook with turquoise college-ruled paper at the time.  The internet was taking off, and I had this amazing new pen, and the world seemed full of possibilities!

It’s exciting to think I live in a time of such development with good old ink and paper; it’s not just all online.  Most of the time I prefer to type, but there are some things for which writing with ink is just better.  Students are now advised to take notes by hand because comprehension is better than with typing.

And there is wonderful poetry about writing by hand; not as much about typing.  Consider this: 

This Letter
Aracelis Girmay
after Marina Wilson

Consider the hands
that write this letter.
The left palm pressed flat against the paper,
as it has done before, over my heart,
in peace or reverence
to the sea or some beautiful thing
I saw once, felt once: snow falling
like rice flung from the giants’ wedding,
or the strangest birds. & consider, then,
the right hand, & how it is a fist,
within which a sharpened utensil,
similar to the way I’ve held a spade,
match to the wick, the horse’s reins,
loping, the very fists
I’ve seen from the roads to Limay & Estelí.
For years, I have come to sit this way:
one hand open, one hand closed,
like a farmer who puts down seeds & gathers up
the food that comes from that farming.
Or, yes, it is like the way I’ve danced
with my left hand opened around a shoulder
& my right hand closed inside
of another hand. & how
I pray, I pray for this
to be my way: sweet
work alluded to in the body’s position
to its paper:
left hand, right hand
like an open eye, an eye closed:
one hand flat against the trapdoor,
the other hand knocking, knocking.



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