The tools of writing

The tools and materials of writing can influence the appearance of different scripts.

One of the earliest forms of writing is known as Cuneiform, meaning 'wedge-shaped'. Cuneiform, used by the ancient Sumerians, was written on to clay with sharpened reeds. The marks made by embedding the hard reed into the squidgey clay created little wedges, and this is where cuneiform gets its name - cuneiform literally means wedge-shaped writing (from the Latin, cuneus meaning 'wedge', and forma meaning 'form'). Cuneiform was in use from around 3200 BC until the 2nd century AD.

Western writing styles are based on the scripts used by the Romans (from the1st century BC to around 600AD). The shape of Roman letters was greatly influenced by writing tools. The angular form of Roman square capitals was dictated by the chisel, and more fluid capitals by the reed pen.

The primary early writing implements were the stylus, the reed or bamboo pen, and the brush. The flexible quill pen, best suited to writing on parchment, was introduced during the 6th century AD. The metal pen was invented in the mid-18th century. Whereas the quill had a nib that needed to be regularly recut, the metal pen had the advantage of a durable nib.

Fountain pens, containing their own reservoirs of ink, appeared during the late 1830s. Chemically manufactured inks were introduced to suit these pens. The ball-point pen, which appeared around 1940, encouraged thinner, more rapid scripts.

19th-century experiments with electric pens led to the development of the duplicator and, from 1907, the photocopier.

The first manual typewriter was patented in 1868 with an electronic version following in 1871. In the 1840s Charles Babbage developed machines to undertake and store mathematical calculations on a punched card system - the ancestor of modern computer technology.

Innovations in the technology of writing have an impact on our relationship with text. The development of digital text has dramatically changed the way that we interact with the written word. Unlike traditional print, digital text can be both flexible and fixed. We can store it on a computer where it can be edited and changed, or we can fix it by printing.

Digital text is written with code. Code commands make words appear to us in a particular style on the screen or printed page. When we use a computer or mobile phone the screen (interface) shows us the text as it will appear when it is printed. The translation of code to screen text is sometimes called WYSIWYG - an acronym for What You See Is What You Get.

Textual conversations by email or text message can jump across great distances of space and time. Books and essays can be read online. Text can be copied from any digital source, pasted into a new document and saved.

Because we can manipulate digital text, we can personalise the way that a piece of writing is presented. We can change colours and fonts or magnify text sizes. We can feed digital writing into a processor that translates it into a different language or make it output in a tactile script like Braille. We can use a speech synthesizer so that it is read back to us. We can choose to make particular words or sections stand out and others disappear. The written word is no longer necessarily fixed.