A Brief History of Writing

Pens and pencils
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The history of writing instruments, which humans have used to record and convey thoughts, feelings, and grocery lists is, in some ways, the history of civilization itself. It is through the drawings, signs, and words we've recorded that we've come to understand the story of our species. 

Some of the first tools used by early humans were the hunting club and the handy sharpened-stone. The latter, initially used as an all-purpose skinning and killing tool, was later adapted into the first writing instrument. Cavemen scratched pictures with the sharpened-stone tool onto the walls of cave dwellings. These drawings represented events in daily life such as the planting of crops or hunting victories.

From Pictographs to Alphabets

With time, the record-keepers developed systematized symbols from their drawings. These symbols represented words and sentences but were easier and faster to draw. Over time, these symbols became shared and universalized among small, groups and later, across different groups and tribes as well.

It was the discovery of clay that made portable records possible. Early merchants used clay tokens with pictographs to record the quantities of materials traded or shipped. These tokens date back to about 8500 BCE. With the high volume of and the repetition inherent in record keeping, pictographs evolved and slowly lost their detail. They became abstract-figures representing sounds in spoken communication.

Around 400 BCE, the Greek alphabet was developed and began to replace pictographs as the most commonly used form of visual communication. Greek was the first script written from left to right. From Greek followed the Byzantine and then the Roman writings. In the beginning, all writing systems had only uppercase letters, but when the writing instruments were refined enough for detailed faces, lowercase was used as well (around 600 CE.)

The Greeks employed a writing stylus made of metal, bone or ivory to place marks upon wax-coated tablets. The tablets were made in hinged pairs and closed to protect the scribe's notes. The first examples of handwriting also originated in Greece and it was the Grecian scholar Cadmus who invented the written alphabet.

Development of Ink, Paper, and Writing Implements

Across the globe, writing was developing beyond chiseling pictures into stone or wedging pictographs into wet clay. The Chinese invented and perfected 'Indian Ink'. Originally designed for blacking the surfaces of raised stone-carved hieroglyphics, the ink was a mixture of soot from pine smoke and lamp oil mixed with the gelatin of donkey skin and musk.

By 1200 BCE, the ink invented by the Chinese philosopher, Tien-Lcheu (2697 BCE), became common. Other cultures developed inks using natural dyes and colors derived from berries, plants, and minerals. In early writings, different colored inks had ritual meanings attached to each color.

The invention of ink paralleled that of paper. The early Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, and Hebrews used papyrus and parchment papers began using parchment paper around 2000 BCE, when the earliest piece of writing on Papyrus known to us today, the Egyptian "Prisse Papyrus" was created. 

The Romans created a reed-pen perfect for parchment and ink from the hollow tubular-stems of marsh grasses, especially from the jointed bamboo plant. They converted bamboo stems into a primitive form of fountain pen and cut one end into the form of a pen nib or point. A writing fluid or ink filled the stem and squeezing the reed forced fluid to the nib.

By the year 400, a stable form of ink developed, a composite of iron-salts, nutgalls, and gum. This became the basic formula for centuries. Its color when first applied to paper was a bluish-black, rapidly turning into a darker black before fading to the familiar dull brown color commonly seen in old documents. Wood-fiber paper was invented in China in the year 105 but was not widely used throughout Europe until paper mills were built in the late 14th century.

Quill Pens

The writing instrument that dominated for the longest period in history (over one-thousand years) was the quill pen. Introduced around the year 700, the quill is a pen made from a bird feather. The strongest quills were those taken from living birds in the spring from the five outer left wing feathers. The left wing was favored because the feathers curved outward and away when used by a right-handed writer.

Quill pens lasted for only a week before it was necessary to replace them. There were other disadvantages associated with their use, including lengthy preparation time. Early European writing parchments made from animal skins required careful scraping and cleaning. To sharpen the quill, the writer needed a special knife. Beneath the writer's high-top desk was a coal stove, used to dry the ink as quickly as possible.

The Printing Press

Plant-fiber paper became the primary medium for writing after another dramatic invention took place. In 1436, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press with replaceable wooden or metal letters. Later, newer printing technologies were developed based on Gutenberg's printing machine, such as offset printing. The ability to mass-produce writing in this way revolutionized the way humans communicate. As much as any other invention since the sharpened-stone, Gutenberg's printing press set forth a new era of human history.

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Bellis, Mary. "A Brief History of Writing." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/brief-history-of-writing-4072560. Bellis, Mary. (2021, February 16). A Brief History of Writing. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/brief-history-of-writing-4072560 Bellis, Mary. "A Brief History of Writing." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/brief-history-of-writing-4072560 (accessed March 22, 2023).