1902 Encyclopedia > Pen


PEN, an instrument for writing or for forming lines with an ink or other coloured fluid. The English word, as well as its equivalents in French (plume) and in German (Feder), originally means a wing-feather, but in ancient times the implements used for producing written charac-ters were not quills. The earliest writing implement was probably the stylus (Gr. _____), a pointed bodkin of metal, bone, or ivory, which, however, was only used for produc-ing incised or engraved letters. The calamus (Gr. _____) or arundo, the hollow tubular stalk of grasses growing in marshy lands, was the true ancient representative of the modern pen; hollow joints of bamboo were similarly employed. The use of such pens can be traced to a remote antiquity among the civilized nations of the East, where reeds and canes are to this day in common use as writing instruments. The earliest specific allusion to the quill pen occurs in the writings of St Isidore of Seville (early part of the 7th century). But there is no reason to assume that the quill pen was not in use at an earlier period, and, indeed, remains have been found which prove that even metal pens were not altogether unknown to the ancient Romans.

The quills, formerly in exclusive use, and still largely employed among Western communities as writing instru-ments, are obtained principally from the wings of the goose. Swan-quills are also highly prized, and for special purposes crow-quills and the wing-feathers of certain other birds are adopted. For the method of preparing quills, &c, see FEATHERS, vol. ix. p. 60. In 1809 Joseph Bramah, the famous inventor, devised and patented a machine for cutting up the quill into separate nibs by dividing the barrel into three or even four parts, and cutting these transversely into "two, three, four, and some into five lengths." Bramah's invention first familiarized the public with the appearance and use of the nib and holder in place of the complete quill or barrel, and in that sense he anti-cipated the form of pen now most commonly used. In 1818 Charles Watt obtained a patent for gilding and pre-paring quills and pens by manual labour and chemical means, which may be regarded as the precursor of the gold pen. But a more distinct advance in this direction was effected in 1822, when Hawkins and Mordan patented the application of horn and tortoise-shell to the formation of pen-nibs, the points of which were rendered durable by impressing into them small pieces of diamond, ruby, or other very hard substance, or by lapping a small piece of thin sheet gold over the end of the tortoise-shell, and by various other ways securing a hard unalterable point to the pen.

Metallic pens, though perhaps not altogether unknown even in classical times, did not come into use till the present century, and indeed did not become common till near the middle of the century. At the meeting of the British Association in Birmingham in 1839 steel pens were scarcely known; ten years later the manufacture had become an important local industry. In 1803 a steel pen was made and sold in London by a Mr Wise, which was in the form of a tube or barrel pen, the edges meeting to form the slit with sides cut away as in the case of an ordi-nary quill. These sold at about five shillings each, and as they were hard, stiff, and unsatisfactory instruments they were not in great demand. In 1808 a metallic pen was patented by Bryan Donkin, made of two separate parts, flat or nearly so, with the flat sides opposite each other forming the slit of the pen, or, as an alternative, of one piece, flat and not cylindrical as in the usual form, bent to the proper angle before being inserted into the tube which forms its holder. In Birmingham a steel pen was made by a split-ring manufacturer, Harrison, for Dr Priestley towards the end of the 18th century. Harrison in after years became associated in the split-ring business with Josiah Mason, who was one of the great pioneers of the steel-pen trade. Mason developed the manufacture on the basis of an in-vention by James Perry, who in 1830 obtained a patent for improvements which must be regarded as the founda-tion of the steel-pen industry. Perry's improvements consisted in producing pens from hard, thin, and elastic metal, the most suitable material being described as the very best steel brought to a spring terhper. The necessary flexibility was given. to the pen by a central hole formed in the pen between the nib and the shoulder in connexion with a central slit, and by making between the nib and the shoulder one of more lateral slits on each side of the central slit. Joseph Gillott, who divides with Mason and Perry the credit of perfecting the metallic pen, does not appear as a patentee till 1831, when he patented an im-provement which consisted in forming elongated points on the nibs of pens. These early pens lacked softness, flexi-bility, and smoothness of action, and subsequent inventions of Perry, Gillott, Mordan, and others were largely devoted to overcoming such defects. Metals other than steel were also frequently suggested by inventors, those most commonly proposed being silver, zinc, German silver, aluminium, and aluminium bronze, the last-named having at one time come into extensive use. The development of the gold pen can-not be traced through the patent records in the same way as some others. Dr Wollaston, it is recorded, used a gold pen composed of two thin slips of gold tipped with rhodium, made apparently on the principle patented by Donkin in 1808. Messrs Mordan of London have the credit of being the earliest regular makers of gold pens with tips of osmium-iridium alloy, and that manufacture was subsequently de-veloped by Messrs Wiley of Birmingham. The gold pens now made are provided with iridium tips, and their manu-facture is a special industry, requiring processes and machines different from those used in the steel-pen industry.

Fountain pens and penholders in which considerable reservoirs of ink could be carried ready for use were intro-duced by a patented invention of the ingenious Joseph Bramah. Of his several plans for a fountain pen one proposal was a hollow tube of silver or other metal, the tube being made so thin that it could readily be compressed out of shape and so cause an escape of ink to the nib, and another plan was to fit the tube with a piston which might slide down the interior and so force out ink. John SchefFer in 1819 patented a device consisting of a reservoir in the holder operated on by a stud, which, when pressed by the thumb, yielded a flow of ink to the nib. Many forms of attachment and modifications of the shape of the pen have also been introduced with, the view of enabling the pen itself to carry a considerable supply of ink, and to discharge it in writing in a safe and equal manner. A highly original and comparatively successful form of fountain pen of recent introduction is known as the stylograph, in which the ordinary form of nib is dis-pensed with, and connected with the barrel or reservoir is a finely-tapered point tipped with iridium pierced with a fine aperture. Into the aperture is fitted an iridium needle or plug attached internally to a delicate gold spring, and the act of writing sufficiently pushes back the needle to allow the escape of the requisite flow of ink by the aperture. The two principal forms of stylograph are that of Mac-kinnon, patented first in the United States in March 1879, and that of Cross, the United States patent for which was secured in January 1878.

The finish which the common steel pen now shows, and the low price at which it can be sold, are triumphs of manufacturing skill, the credit of which is largely due to Birmingham. For the fraction of a farthing there can now be purchased an article incomparably superior to that which in the early years of the century cost five shillings. The metal used consists of rolled sheets of cast steel of the finest quality, made from Swedish charcoal iron. These sheets are cut into strips of suitable width, annealed in a muffle furnace, and pickled in a bath of dilute sulphuric acid to remove the oxidized scale from the surface. The strips so cleaned are next rolled between steel rollers till they are reduced to ribbons the thickness of the pens to be made. At this stage the raw material is ready for the series of manufacturing operations, most of which are performed with the aid of hand fly-presses, moving suitable cutting, stamping, and embossing attachments. The pen blanks are first cut out of the ribbon so as to leave as little scrap as possible. These blanks are next pierced, that is, the central perforation and the side or shoulder slits by which flexibility is secured are made at one operation. After again annealing, they are marked and em-bossed with maker's name, trade-mark, or any of the endless variety of marks by which pens are distinguished from each other. Up to this point the blanks are flat; they are now raised or rounded into the semi-cylindrical form in which pens are used. At this stage the pens are tempered by heating in iron boxes in a muffle, plunging in oil, and heating over a fire in a rotating cylindrical vessel till their surfaces attain the dull blue colour characteristic of spring steel elasticity. They are then scoured and polished by being revolved in large tin cylinders, in which they are mixed with sand, pounded crucibles, or such substances. The grinding of the points next follows, an operation performed by small rapidly-revolving emery-wheels, on which the points are first ground lengthwise and then across the nib, the object of the process being to increase the elasticity of the point. The slitting process which follows—that is, the cutting of the pen-slit from the perforation to the point—is effected with a chisel-cutter worked by a hand screw-press. On the precision with which the slit divides the point depends the perfection of the pen, to finish whicli it now only re-mains to colour the surface in a revolving cylinder over a charcoal fire, and to varnish it in a solution of shellac.

Birmingham, which was the first home of the steel-pen industry, continues to be its principal centre, but steel pens are also made in the United States and in France and Germany. (J. PA.)

The above article was written by: James Paton, Corporation Galleries of Art, Glasgow.

Search the Encyclopedia:

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-17 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries