Quill Pen, Dip Pen, Fountain Pen and Ballpoint Pen

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 19th, 2013

Technology 101

The Quill Pen was nothing more than a Bird’s Feather and some Ingenious Thinking

The pen is mightier than the sword.  For while the sword can kill a person they cannot kill that person’s words.  Even the words ‘sword’ and ‘words’ are interesting in themselves.  For if you drop the ‘s’ from both you have ‘word’.  That thing that makes us human.  Putting our thoughts into words onto paper.  So that others can read these words.  And understand our thoughts.  Our ideas.  Our perspectives.  Our wisdom.  So we can pass these words down through the ages.  Or on to others in our current age.

The Egyptians, the Sumerians, the Harappa and the Nanzhuangtou all wrote.  A stylus on a clay tablet was probably the first form of writing.  Not quite the communications we have today.  But this writing gave us the four great ancient civilizations.  But only a select few wrote in these early civilizations.  No.  Writing didn’t really take off until much later.  And the introduction of the first great writing tool.  The quill pen.  Which was nothing more than a bird’s feather.  And some ingenious thinking.

What happens when you place a paper towel on a spill?  The towel absorbs the liquid.  By rising up into the paper towel.  This is capillary action.  And is the basis of the quill pen.  Without getting too technical molecules in a liquid are attracted to the surface of a round tube.  Everyone no doubt remembers seeing this in a high school chemistry class using a graduated cylinder.  That tall tube of glass we measured liquids in by reading the scale off of the glass.  The surface of the glass attracted and pulled up the liquid on the sides of the glass.  Forming a concave surface on top.  The narrower the tube the greater this pulling force.  And the higher this attraction will pull a liquid up the tube.

Thanks to the Dip Pen most Americans were Well-Informed and Literate at the time of the Civil War

A bird’s feather is hollow.  A long narrow tube.  When dipped in a well of ink capillary forces will pull this ink up the hollow tube of the feather.  And hold it there.  Not a long column of ink.  But enough to let us write words.  Before we did, though, we used a pen knife to cut a nib in the end.  You make a 45-degree cut across the bottom.  Then you cut again to remove most of the round cylinder.  If you were looking into the end of the feather and imagine the face of a clock you would remove everything from 1:00 to 11:00.  Or thereabouts.  So you are left with a flat-like extension from the tube of the feather.  You then cut the tip of this flat extension to get a nice chisel point.  Then, finally, you slice or score this flat extension of the tube from the tip of the nub to the tube holding the ink.  This allowed the ink to flow from the tube to the point.  As one wrote the ink at the tip would wipe off on the paper.  And when it did it would pull fresh ink from the tube reservoir above.

This was a remarkable tool.  And one we used for a very long time.  Roughly from the 6th to the 19th century.  This is what the scribes used in those monasteries when they translated all those Greek texts the Crusaders brought back to Europe.  Quills penned Magna Carta.  It’s what Shakespeare used.  It gave us the King James Bible.  The works of the Enlightenment.  The Declaration of Independence.  The U.S. Constitution.  And the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.  We used it that long because it was that good.  Simple.  And we only stopped using it when manufacturing techniques advanced to the point that could create the quill nib in steel.  Giving us the dip pen.  And once we did we said goodbye to the quill pen.

The dip pen was basically the quill nib made out of steel.  Only it was sturdier.  And didn’t require anyone having to become skilled with a pen knife.  We began manufacturing the dip pen around the 1820s.  Mass production techniques brought down prices.  Allowing anyone to write.  Even children with poor pen knife skills.  School desks had holes in the upper right corner.  To hold an ink well.  So children in school could dip their pens.  And put words to paper.  Literacy rates soared.  As did education.  Americans were probably not more informed and literate than they were at the time of the Civil War.  Thanks to the inexpensive and easy-to-use dip pen.

Penmanship and Cursive Writing were once Important Parts of the School Curriculum

The dip pen had a much shorter life than the quill pen.  Replaced by the fountain pen.  Pretty much the same as the dip pen.  Only with an internal ink reservoir.  Other advancements made the fountain pen portable.  Such as a retractable nib.  Or a cap that covered the nib.  Allowing us to slip the fountain pen in a pocket without ink staining our shirt.  We filled early reservoirs with an eyedropper.  Which was messy.  The next development was adding a mechanism that when operated drew ink up through the nib into the reservoir.  And a breather hole helped the ink flow to the paper by allowing air to enter the reservoir to replace the ink as it left.  Filling a fountain pen through the nib was neater to fill than using an eye dropper.  But still required an open ink well.  Which could spill or leave excess ink on the nib after filling.  The next advancement was an ink cartridge.  Removing the need to have an open well of ink.  Removing the chance of an ink spill.  And there was no excess ink on the nib after refilling.

The fountain pen was about as good as it got.  Until the ballpoint pen arrived.  Cheap.  Disposable.  Convenient.  And clean.  Up until the ballpoint pen the mechanics of the pen remained the same from the quill pen to the dip pen to the fountain pen.  They all had a nib with a slit that drew ink from a reservoir.  The ballpoint pen was a completely different technology.  Where we replaced the nib with a very small ball inserted into a point.  Hence ballpoint pen.  We make the ball from a very hard metal such as tungsten carbide and machine it into a perfect sphere.  The ball snaps into a socket in the point.  Attached to this nib assembly is an ink-filled plastic tube.  The ball fits so snuggly that it can’t slip out of the point or slip up into the ink reservoir.  And it holds back the ink from running out of the reservoir.  When you write you drag the point across the paper.  This rotates the ball in the point.  Bringing ink from behind the ball onto the paper.  Producing a very uniform ink line.

The ink pen created civilization.  By allowing us to put our thoughts into words.  And putting those words onto paper for others to read.  Penmanship and writing in cursive were once important parts of the school curriculum.  As they were the gateway to literacy and education.  But that has all changed.  Few people write today.  Instead they type.  Or text.  Bastardizing our words into shorthand gibberish.  A long cry from the elegant words of William Shakespeare.  Or the impassioned words of the Declaration of Independence.  Where we raised our words to the level of art and put them to paper.  Ushering in the golden era of civilization.  Where we were our most human.  Expressing our thoughts.  Our ideas.  Our perspectives.  And our wisdom.  Replaced today with truncated efficiency.  As we dehumanize ourselves to live in a digital world.

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