The Story of Writing

Writing began about 5,500 years ago as a way of keeping accounts and records, and later of passing on news, views and stories. Before this, people had to rely on what they could remember, and this was not always very accurate. As people began to trade and travel widely, a more practical and reliable system of storing and passing on infromation was needed.

Without writing, we would know very little about the past. Most of our historical evidence comes from ancient writing. From Ancient Egyptian records, for example, we know about what people wore, what they ate, what work they did, the battles they fought, whom they married, what their hourse looked like, and the gods they worshipped.

Temple Records

Some of the earliest known examples of writing are inscriptions found on clay tablets from Sumeria (now in Iraq). The tablets are over 5,000 years old. They are temple records, listing heads of cattle, sacks of grain and the number of workers (bakers, brewers, blacksmiths and slaves) employed in various temples.

The First Alphabets

The Egyptians – In many early civilisations, writing was thought to be a gift from the gods. The Ancient Egyptians believed that Thoth, the god of wisdom, created writing and bestowed it on the world. The word “hieroglyphics”, which describes the Egyptian writing system, means “sacred writing”.

The picture symbols could represent a whole word, a single sound or part of a longer word. It could be written and read left to right, right to left, or top to bottom. Animal and people signs provided clues about where to start. If they faced left, you read from left to right, and so on.

The whole system was so complicated that highly-trained scribes were the only ones to understand it. Most Egyptians couldn’t read or write!

Hieroglyphs remained a complete mystery until AD1822. Then, for the first time, a French linguist, Jean-Francois Champollion, deciphered the hieroglyphs inscribed on a large, stone slab known as the Rosetta stone.

The Vikings believed that thier god, Odin, invented the runes they wrote with. The Viking alphabet, or futhark, gets its name from its first six letters and only has 16 letters. It was designed to be carved on wood or stone so the individual letters, or runes, were composed of simple, straight lines.

The Ancient Greeks, in the 8th century BC, adopted the alphabet of the Phoenicians, a trading people from Lebanon. The Greeks had to add vowels because the Phoenician alphabet only used consonants. At first, they wrote from right to left. Then they tried writing “plough-wise”, changing ddirection at the end of each line, like oxen ploughing a field. Eventually, they settled on writing left to right, which made life a lot easier.

The Romans – A form of the Greek alphabet was adapted for writing Latin, the language of the Romans. During the time of the Roman Empire, the alphabet only contained 22 letters. J, U, W, Y and Z were added later. Long after the Romans had come and gone, their alphabet remained. In the Middle Ages, Latin was the language of scholars and the Church. The alphabet we use today to write English is based on the Roman alphabet.

~ excerpt from The Story of Writing and Printing by Anita Ganeri ~

History of Pens & Pencils

Early writers didn’t have the enormous range of pens, pencils and other writing implements we have at our fingertips today. In the Middle East, where writing began, reeds and rushes grew in many areas. So people cut lengths of reeds, sharpened the ends, dipped them into soot or ink and used them to write with.

Since then, writing has progressed leaps and bounds. And the need for greater accuracy and speed has led to many improvements in writing instruments. The basic rules behind pens and other tools of the trade, however, have remained much the same.

Quill Pens

The first quill pens were made in about 500BC and were still in use in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Quill pens were made from swan or goose feathers, cut into a point at one end to make a nib. This was then dipped in ink.

Quill pens were quick and handy to use. The only problem was that they kept going blunt and having to be resharpened.

Stylus Style

In Greek and Roman times, metal and bone replaced the reeds of the earliest pens.

Writers used styli of bronze, bone or ivory to scratch letters on to was panels. The pointed end of the stylus was used for writing with, the blunt end for erasing mistakes.

Nibs of Steel

The first metal nibs were so hard and rigid, they scratched paper to pieces. But by the mid-1800s, things had improved and steel-nibbed pens became very popular.

The first fountain pens used eye-droppers to contain their ink but the ink kept clotting and clogging up the nib.

The first workable fountain pen was produced by Lewis Waterman of the USA in 1884. You can still buy Waterman pens today. One problem remained, however. Every time the pen ran out of ink, it had to be refilled. This could be messy and time-consuming.

In the 1950s, an answer was found – the disposable ink cartridge. Once its ink supply was used up, it could be thrown away and a new cartridge inserted.

Pencil Power

Pencils were first made in about 1795. A pencil is a stick of “lead” (it’s actually a mixture of clay and graphite), held inside a wooden case. Bet you didn’t know that?!?

Pencils have different degrees of hardness or softness, indicated by the letters printed on them. Soft pencils (B and 2B) contain more graphite in their lead. Hard pencils (H and 2H) contain more clay.

Ballpoint Pens

These days, we live in the “disposable age” and most people use a ballpoint pen, which has a tiny ball-bearing in its writing tip, instead of a nib. As you write, the ballbearing gets coated in ink from a tube inside the pen and rolls the ink on to the paper. When the ink runs dry, you can throw the pen away and get a new one.

Did you know…?

The inventor of the biro was Mr Ladislao Josef Biro, a Hungarian living in Argentina. He registered his invention in 1938.

The American, Thomas Edison, is best known for his invention of the electric light bulb and the phonograph. But another of his more unusual inventions was an electric pen. It was designed to make copies of handwritten documents but it never really caught on.

In Ancient Roman times, ink was made from soot and water.