How writing instruments have changed

“What’s a typewriter?” a student asked me recently.  Her question made me realize 1) how old I am, and 2) how quickly the instruments we use to write have changed.  Looking only at instruments used after WWII, here is a brief history of writing instruments.

  • Pencils began when a large deposit of graphite was discovered in Britain in 1564. Almost 100 years later they were first produced in Germany, filling hollowed-out cylinders of wood.  For the past 100 years US pencils have been made of incense cedar, a tree which grows in California.  Since 1890, American pencils have been painted yellow.  That is because at that time the best graphite came from China.  To show that the graphite was of Chinese origin, the pencils were painted yellow, a color associated with Chinese royalty.
  • Typewriters were invented in 1868, and quickly caught on for office use in the late 1800’s. The keyboard we know today was standardized around 1910.  With a heavy hand, the typist struck one key at a time.  That key in turn struck a ribbon which pressed a raised image against a paper.  After typing, the typists’ arms would ache.  In 1961 the first electric typewriters became available.  Typewriters are rarely used any more, made obsolete by the invention of the keyboard.
  • Leonardo da Vinci might have invented the fountain pen (called nib pens), but for sure in Europe two quills were used together to form fountain pens in the 1600’s.  Such pens became available for purchase in 1828.  But they leaked; filling them was a dirty business; and they needed to be blotted.  They weren’t widely used until the 1880’s.  By the 1940’s and 1950’s these problems had been largely solved, and fountain pens dominated for handwriting.
  • Ball point pens date to 1888, but they had many ink delivery problems in their first half century. The size of the ball socket might release too much ink or too little.  The ink smudged.  An Argentine solved the problems, and an American, visiting Argentina after WWII, recognized the potential of this invention, patented it in the US, and sold the first ones on October 29, 1945, for $12.50 each.
  • Fiber- or felt-tipped pens appeared in the 1960’s. These led to markers and highlighters.
  • Computer keyboards became popular in the 1980’s, beginning in 1981 with the production of IBM’s first computer with a built-in keyboard. Now keyboards abound in various materials and shapes. (I’m typing on an ergonomically-shaped plastic one.)
  • Touchscreen technology has been around since the early 1970s, but was not widely used for writing until 2010 when Apple introduced the iPad. Now that technology is widespread in tablets and phones.

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