(This is taken from David N. Carvalho's Forty Centuries of Ink.)
THE QUILL PEN THE MOST SUCCESSFUL AND FITTING OF ALL WRITING INSTRUMENTS—TENDENCY TO “WEAR” OUT—THE SOMETIMES AFFECTION FOR OLD PENS—DR. HOLLAND’S LINES ON THE PEN—SELECTION OF QUILLS TO BE MADE INTO PENS—METHOD OF PREPARING THEM—BYRON’S ESTIMATION OF HIS QUILL PEN—ITS INVENTION BEFORE THE SIXTH CENTURY UNCERTAIN—EMPLOYMENT OF THE REED AND QUILL PEN TOGETHER UNTIL THE TWELFTH CENTURY—WHEN THE STEEL PEN CAME INTO VOGUE—WHO WAS ITS INVENTOR—SOME OBSERVATIONS ABOUT IT—QUANTITY OF MATERIAL SIXTY YEARS AGO CONSUMED IN PEN MANUFACTURE—A FEW REMARKS ABOUT GOLD, FOUNTAIN AND STYLOGRAPHIC PENS—MORE STEEL USED IN THE MANUFACTURE OF PENS THAN IN THAT OF SWORDS AND GUNS—POETICAL LINES ABOUT THE PEN.
THE quills belonging to the feathers of birds seem to have been the most successful and fitting of all materials for pens, for, though steel and other metals are now used for this purpose to an immense extent, there is a power of adaptation in a quill pen which has never yet been equalled in metal. Quills, however, like other things, have a tendency to “wear out,” and the trouble resulting from the necessity of frequently mending quill pens and a desire to write with more rapidity have been the main causes of the introduction of steel substitutes. A kind of affection has often been felt by an author or official, or their admirers, for the pen with which he has written any large or celebrated work or signed some important document; old worn-out pens, as well as new ones, have been preserved as memorials in connection with such matters, and Dr. Holland, who translated Pliny’s “Natural History” in the sixteenth century, recorded an exploit connected with it in the following lines:
“With one sole pen I wrote this book,
Made of a gray goose-quill:
A pen it was when it I took
A pen I leave it still.”
The quills employed for pens were generally those of the goose, although the crow, the swan, and other birds yielded feathers which were occasionally available for this purpose. Each wing produced about five good quills, but the number thus yielded was so small that the geese reared in England could not furnish nearly enough for the demand, hence the importation of goose quills from the Continent was very large. The process surrounding the manufacture of a quill pen proves of considerable interest.
“The geese are plucked of their feathers three or four times a year, the first time for the sake both of the quills and the feathers, but the other times for the feathers only. The pen quills are generally taken from the ends of the wings. When plucked the quills are found to be covered with a membranous skin, resulting from a decay of a kind of sheath which had enveloped them; the interior vascular membrane, too, resulting from the decay of the vascular pith, adheres so strongly to the barrel of the quill as to be with difficulty separated, while, at the same time, the barrel itself is opaque, soft, and tough. To remove these various defects the quills undergo several processes. In the first instance, as a means of removing the membraneous skin, the quills are plunged into heated sand, the high temperature of which causes the external skin of the barrel to crack and peel off, and the internal membrane to shrivel up. The outer membrane is then scraped off with a sharp instrument, while the inner membrane remains in a state to be easily detached. For the finest quills the heating is repeated two or three times. The heat of the sand, by consuming or drying up the natural moisture of the barrel, renders it harder and more transparent. In order to give the barrel a yellow color, and a tendency to split more readily and clearly, it is dipped in weak nitric acid, but this was considered to render the quill more brittle and less durable, and was therefore a sacrifice of utility for the sake of appearance.”
“Oh! nature’s noblest gift—my gray goose quill!
Slave of my thoughts, obedient to my will,
Torn from thy parent bird to form a pen,
That mighty instrument of little men!”
To locate an exact period for the invention of the quill pen is impossible. It could hardly have been in use before the fourth century, probably not earlier than two centuries later. Some writers have assumed that it was employed by the Romans, but as no distinct mention is made of them by early classical authors we must accept the only information at hand.
Isidore (died A. D. 636) and contemporaries state that the quills of birds came into use as pens only in the sixth century. It is also known, St. Brovverus being the authority, that in his time (seventh century) the calamus or reed pen and the quill pen were employed together, the calamus being used in the writing of the uncial (inch) letters and capitals, and the quill for smaller letters. Mention is also made by many writers of the five centuries which followed Isidore’s time of the calamus, indicating that notwithstanding it had been superseded by the quill it was still a favorite writing implement in some places.
The use of the “steel pen” did not spring immediately from that of the “quill pen.” There were several intermediate stages adopted before the fitness of steel for this purpose was sufficiently known, From about 1800 to 1835 the number of proposed substitutes for the quill pen was very considerable. Horn pens, tortoise-shell pens, nibs of diamond or ruby imbedded in tortoise shell, nibs of ruby set in fine gold, nibs of rhodium and of iridium imbedded in gold,-- all have been adopted at different times, but most of them have been found too costly for general adoption. Steel is proved to be sufficiently elastic and durable to form very good pens, and the ingenuity of manufacturers has been exerted to give to such pens as many as possible of the good qualities possessed by the quill pen.
The original flexible iron pen of modern times was an experimental affair probably, being mentioned by Chamberlayne as far back as 1685.
The first steel pens in regular use were made by Wise, in London, in 1803, and for many years thereafter.
His pen was made with a barrel, by which it was slipped upon a straight handle. In its portable form it was mounted in a bone case for the pocket. Prejudice, however, was strong against them, and up to 1835 or thereabouts quills maintained their full sway, and much later among the old-fashioned folks. To him, however, is due the credit of being the inventor of the modern steel pen.
It has been the thought of some people that Gillott was the progenitor of the steel pen, but he was not. Arnoux, a French mechanic, made metallic pens with side slits in 1750. Samuel Harrison, an Englishman, made a steel pen for Dr. Priestly in 1780. Peregrine Williamson, a native of New York, while engaged as a jeweler in the city of Baltimore, made steel pens in 1800.
Perry’s first pens were of steel, rolled from wire, the material costing seven shillings a pound. Five shillings each was paid the workman for making them; this was afterward reduced to thirty-six shillings per gross, which price was continued for several years.
It was Joseph Gillott, however, originally a Sheffield cutler, and afterwards a workman in light steel articles, as buckles, chains, and other articles of that class, who in 1822 gave impulse to the steel-pen manufacture. Previous to his entering the business the pens were cut out with shears and finished with the file. Gillott adapted the stamping press to the requirements of the manufacture, as cutting out the blanks, forming the slits, bending the metal, and impressing the maker’s name on the pens. He also devised improved modes of preparing the metal for the action of the press, tempering, cleansing, and polishing, and, in short, many little details of manufacture necessary to give them the required flexibility to enable them to compete with the quill pen. One great difficulty to be overcome was their extreme hardness and stiffness; this was effected by making slits at the side in addition to the central one, which had previously been solely used. A further improvement, that of cross grinding the points, was subsequently adopted. The first gross of pens with three slits was sold for seven pounds. In 1830 the price was $2.00; in 1832, $1.50; in 1861, 12 cents, and a common variety for 4 cents a gross. About 9,300 tons of steel are annually consumed, the number of pens produced in England alone being about 8,000,000,000.
Bramah patented quill nibs made by splitting quills and cutting the semicylinders into sections which were shaped into pens and adapted to be placed in a holder. These were, perhaps, the first nibs, the progenitors of a host of steel, gold, and other pens.
Hawkins and Mordan, in 1823, made nibs of horn and tortoise shell, instead of quill. The tortoise shell being softened, points of ruby and diamond were imbedded. Metallic points were also cemented to the shell nibs.
Doughty, about 1825, made gold pens with ruby points.
Gold pens with rhodium or iridium points were introduced soon afterwards.
Mordan’s oblique pen, English patent, 1831, was designed to present the nibs in the right direction while preserving the customary positions of the pen and hand.
The fountain pen carries a supply of ink, fed gradually to the point of the instrument. The first made by Scheffer was introduced about 1835 by Mordan. The pressure of the thumb on a stud in a holder caused a continuous supply of ink to flow from the reservoir to the pen.
The “stylographic” is a reservoir pen shaped like a pencil, in which the flow of ink is regulated by pressure of a style or fine needle with blunt point upon the paper. It must be held in a vertical position. All marks made with one, both up and down strokes, are equal in width.
Gold pens are now usually tipped with iridium, making what are commonly known as diamond points.
“The iridium for this purpose is found in small grains of platinum, slightly alloyed with this latter metal. The gold for pens is alloyed with silver to about sixteen carats fineness, rolled into thin strips, from which the blanks are struck. The under side of the point is notched by a small circular saw to receive the iridium point, which is selected with the aid of a microscope. A flux of borax and a blowpipe secure it to its place. The point is then ground on a copper wheel of emery. The pen-blank is next rolled to the requisite thinness by the means of rollers especially adapted for the purpose, and tempered by blows from a hammer. It is then trimmed around the edges, stamped, and formed in a press. The slit is next cut through the solid iridium point by means of a thin copper wheel fed with fine emery, and a saw extends the aperture along the pen itself. The inside edges of the slit are smoothed and polished by the emery wheel; burnishing and hammering produce the proper degree of elasticity.”
It is asserted that more steel is used in the manufacture of pens than in all the swords and guns in the world. This fact partly verifies the old saying, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
“Three things bear mighty sway with men,
The Sword, the Sceptre, and the Pen;
Who can the least of these command,
In the first rank of Fame will stand.”
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