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Pen and Pencil History

Pens of one type or another have been used for thousands of years. Today, pens rank among the most widely used writing instruments. More than 2 billion pens are manufactured in the United States annually. There are five main kinds of pens. They are (1) ballpoint pens, (2) fountain pens, (3) soft-tip pens, (4) rolling-ball pens, and (5) specialty pens.

Ballpoint pens have a tiny ball made of brass, steel, or tungsten carbide as their writing tip. A compartment called the ink reservoir holds the ink, and a narrow tube links the reservoir to the ball. The ball, which is fitted into a socket, turns as it rolls across the paper, carrying ink from inside the pen onto the paper. Many ballpoint pens have a plastic cap that helps prevent ink from drying out on the ball. On others, a push-button mechanism draws the pen point into the body of the pen.

Most ballpoint pens depend on gravity to pull the ink to the ball. For this reason, ballpoint pens generally do not write well when held sideways. However, some ball points are designed so that slight pressure is always applied behind the ink column. This design enables the ink to move constantly forward and the pen to write even when its point is higher than its back end. Ballpoint pens use a thick, sticky ink because a thinner ink would leak out around the ball. But the use of such ink makes ballpoint pens write less smoothly than most other pens.

Fountain pens have a somewhat triangular writing point, called a nib, which is made of gold or stainless steel. A system of narrow tubes known as the feed carries the ink from the pen’s reservoir to the nib.

Fountain pens use a highly fluid ink. They rely on a property called capillarity to draw the ink into and through the feed. Capillarity causes the inner surface of the tubes to attract molecules of ink. These ink molecules, in turn, attract other ink molecules, and the feed fills with ink from the pen’s reservoir. 

The feed in a fountain pen also includes a number of air passages that lead to the reservoir. These passages allow air to fill the top of the reservoir as ink is drawn from the bottom. Thus the air pressure inside the pet remains equal to the air pressure outside the pen, and the ink flows easily. If the air pressure inside the ink reservoir is lower than the atmospheric pressure outside, the ink will not reach the point and the pen will fail to write. However, if the air pressure over the ink column becomes greater than the air pressure outside the pen, ink will flood out from the front of the pen. To avoid such flooding, fountain pens are designed with a collector. The collector, which is located near the nib, consists of a series of fins and spaces that provide enough additional room to accommodate forward moving ink.

Soft-tip pens, also called porous-pointed pens, have a relatively soft writing tip. Some soft-tip pens, called felt-tip pens, have a felt-like writing tip. The tip of others is made of absorbent plastic. Soft-tip pens use fluid, brilliantly colored inks. The reservoir in a soft-tip pen consists of a special synthetic material made up of many fibers. This type of reservoir, called a capillary reservoir, holds ink in much the same way that a sponge holds water. During writing, the absorbent tip of a soft-tip pen continually draws ink from the reservoir onto the paper.  

Roller ball pens combine certain features of ball point, fountain, and soft-tip pens. Like ballpoint pens, roller ball pens have a tiny ball that turns in a socket at their tip. But unlike ball points, roller ball pens use highly fluid inks, which allow them to write as smoothly as soft-tip and fountain pens.

Roller ball  pens may have either a capillary reservoir similar to that used in soft-tip pens or a reservoir like that of ball points. A wick made of an absorbent material draws ink from the reservoir and carries it to the ball. The wick can carry only a limited amount of ink at any onetime. In this way, the wick regulates the flow of ink and prevents it from leaking out.   

Specialty pens are designed for specific purposes. for example, artists and mechanical drafters use a pen called a technical pen. This pen comes with a set of interchangeable pen points of varying widths. Another special pen, called a lettering pen, is used to create an elegant style of handwriting called calligraphy.

A Pencil is the most widely used writing and drawing instrument in the world. People use pencils to write words, numbers, music, and poetry, and to draw pic­tures, plans, maps, and diagrams. There are pencils that write underwater, and pencils used by physicians to mark their patients’ skin before surgery. Astronauts have also taken pencils into space because the writing ability of pencils is unaffected by gravity, pressure, or conditions in the atmosphere. More than 10 billion pencils are produced annually throughout the world. The United States manufactures almost 2 billion pencils yearly—more than any other country.

Pencils consist of a writing core made mostly of graphite set within a case of wood, metal, or plastic. There are three main types of pencils: (1) cased pencils, (2) colored pencils, and 13) mechanical pencils.

Mechanical pencils have a metal or plastic (or wood) case. They use leads similar to those used in cased pencils. Mechanical pencils require no sharpening. The lead is forced out of the pointed end by twisting the cap, or by some other mechanical method. The lead rests inside a spiral (round coil) within the case and is held in place by a rod that has a stud (piece of metal) fastened to it. Whet the cap is twisted, the rod and stud move downward in the spiral, forcing the lead toward the point. 

Graphite for pencils is formed into spaghetti like strings, cut to precise measurements, and dried in ovens. Manufacturers vary the proportions of graphite and clay in the mixture to produce pencils with harder and softer writing cores. The Number 2 pencil is the standard and most common pencil used today. Pencils with numbers less than 2 have softer leads and contain less clay and more graphite. Soft pencils make a dark, heavy line. Harder pencils make a finer, lighter line.   


As early as 4,000 B.C., ancient peoples used crude pens consisting of hollow straws or reeds that supported a short column of liquid. During the 500’s B.C., people began to make pens from the wing feathers of such birds as geese and swans. The shaft of the feathers was hardened, and the writing tip was shaped and slit to make writing easy. These feather pens were known as quill pens, and they were widely used until the development of steel-nib pens in the 1800’s.  

By the late 1800’s, inventors had perfected an early version of the fountain pen. This pen represented a major improvement over previous pens, because it featured an ink reservoir and a capillary feed. Earlier pens held only a small amount of ink at a time and had to be repeatedly dipped in ink.

The First Fountain Pen

In 1883, L. E. Waterman, an insurance salesman, purchased a writing contraption with its own ink reservoir. But when it leaked, ruining a sale, he got an idea for a better one and decided to make it himself. In those days a salesman often wore a vest chain with a small metal container holding a vial of ink in one pocket and a collapsible penholder in the other. Waterman examined several so-called pocket pens and saw that none of them had a mechanism for the sure control of ink flow. He determined to invent one. Applying the principle of capillary attraction, he designed a feed with a groove for air intake and three narrow slits in the bottom of the groove. As air bubbles interred, they pressed against the ink in the barrel and the ink descended through the slits in a uniform flow to the pen point.

This device was so novel the Patent Office granted a patent in 1884, only a few months after the filing. Waterman claimed that his new mechanism would "prevent the excessive discharge of the ink when the pen is in use." It was the first practical fountain pen and its three-fissure feed became the standard principle for all other makes produced thereafter.

Waterman started assembling his pens on a kitchen table in the rear of a cigar store. In September of 1885 he started to advertise. After that Waterman’s Ideal rode the road to fortune.

The first pens were long tubes with a cap fitted on a projection at the top of the barrel. The cone cap, sliding over the end, did not come until 1899. Color was first used in 1898 with the hexagon holder. A self-filling piston replaced the reloading eye dropper in 1903. In a 1908 model the barrel was made with a movable sleeve which exposed a metal bar; by finger pressure the bar squeezed a soft rubber sac. Up to this time there had been no sacs in fountain pens.

The Waterman Company (L. E. Waterman died in 1901) introduced a slot big enough to admit the edge of a coin to compress the sac in 1913. Later the same year the lever appeared, set in a metal housing attached to the barrel; the lever emptied or filled the sac completely in one stroke. Changes since that time have been mainly in styling.

The first Ball Point Pen

The first patent for a ball point pen was No. 392,046, granted October 30, 1888, to John J. Loud of Weymouth, Mass. Loud used the pen to mark leather fabrics. Another ball point pen device was patented by Van Vechten Riesburg in 1916. Both patents lapsed without improvement renewal.

Ballpoint pens received little notice until World War 11(1939-1945). Many pilots began using ballpoint pens during this conflict, because such pens did not leak at high altitudes. After the war, ballpoint pens became increasingly popular. Soft-tip pens and rolling-ball pens both were introduced during the 1960’s.

The first ball point pen to replace the then common "fountain pen" was introduced by Milton Reynolds in 1945. It used a tiny ball bearing which rolled heavy gelatin ink onto the paper. The Reynolds Pen was a crude writing instrument, but it sold like "hot cakes" when first introduced at a price of $10, using the slogan "It writes under water." Competition finally forced prices down to less than 10 cents for ball point pens by 1960. By then the Reynolds pen had disappeared from the market place.


The earliest pencils date back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who used flat cakes of lead to mark faint black lines on papyrus (an early form of paper) to guide writers. In the Middle Ages, people used thin rods of lead or silver for drawing. The marking ability of graphite was discovered in the 1500’s, and the first modern pencil—that is, one consisting of a wood case glued around a stick of graphite—was made in the late 1700’s.

In 1795, Nicholas Jacques Conte, a French chemist, developed a pencil of powdered graphite and clay. His mixture proved to be as smooth and hard as pure graphite. Conte also discovered that a harder or softer writing core could be produced by varying the proportions of clay and graphite.

In the mid-1800’s, William Monroe, a Massachusetts cabinetmaker, invented a machine that cut and grooved wood slats precisely enough to make pencils. About the same time, the American inventor Joseph Dixon developed the method of cutting single cedar cylinders in half to receive the core and then gluing them back to­gether. In 1861, the first pencil-making factory in the United States was built in New York City by Eberhard Faber, an American manufacturer. The first mechanical pencil was patented by the Eagle Pencil Company in 1879.