A brief history of writing materials and technologies

A brief history of writing materials and technologies

From the earliest incisions and scratchings to the quill pen of the middle ages, how did we come to get the diverse range of tools to produce writing we know today?

This article has been created as part of our Writing: Making Your Mark exhibition. Find out more and book tickets.

Incising and scratching

The earliest material used to write on was clay. It needs little preparation before use, is easy to work and was readily available in Mesopotamia, where the first writing developed. 

Damp clay could be formed into a tablet in the hand and drawn into with a stylus. The tablets could be reworked and reused or baked to make them permanent. The first stylus was probably a cut reed which was pressed into damp clay. This produced wedge-shaped marks that came to be known as cuneiform.

In ancient China, records of divination rituals are found carved into the surface of animal bones. While the vast majority of these inscriptions are incised, there are a small number that appear to have been written with brush and ink. Could this merely be a matter of survival – the hardest-wearing materials surviving for longest? It may be that writing with ink on more perishable materials than bone might go back much further in Chinese history than we have evidence for.

Chinese oracle bone

Oracle bones were used for divination over three thousand years ago in ancient China and they are the oldest items held in the British Library. This is the recto image.

Oracle bones were used for divination over 3,000 years ago in ancient China.

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Inscribed writing can also be found on wax tablets. Entering Greek and Roman culture via Egypt, wax tablets became one of the most commonly available writing materials throughout the region. The tablets were fashioned from wood (or precious materials like ivory) and carved out to form a recessed surface which was then filled with beeswax. 

Tablets were the notebooks of the ancient and medieval worlds, employed for drafting, dictation, accounts, lists and also as exercise books for learning to write.

2,000-year-old homework book

Wax tablet

This homework book shows a child in Egypt's efforts to learn Greek.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Ink, pens and brushes

The first evidence of writing with ink comes from Egypt, almost as early as incised hieroglyphs (3200 BC). Essentially there are two forms of ink that have been used since then:

  1. A staining ink that penetrates the writing surface and dyes it, e.g. iron gall inks, indigo, walnut inks, inks based on aniline dyes, many modern fountain pen inks and the inks within fibre-tip pens.
  2. Ink made from a pigment (i.e. coloured particles of material) which merely remains on the writing surface, without staining it. These coloured particles would rub off when dry unless they are mixed with a binding agent (like gum Arabic or egg) that fixes them in place.

Across Asia, in India, China and Japan, ink has often been based on carbon (soot) mixed with a little gum or gelatine. The particles are obtained from burning oil or resinous pinewood. Solid cakes of ink are reconstituted by being ground down with water on a smooth stone.

Inks can also get up close and personal when words and phrases are tattooed into the skin. Ink research for modern pens is on-going, with colour and texture-based pens (think of gels and glitter) being some of today’s varieties. Pen and ink technologies, far from declining, have snowballed in the last few decades.

Burmese tattooing implements

Burmese tattooing implement

In the 19th century, it was seen as a rite of passage for young Burmese men to endure the painful process of being tattooed with sharp, weighted brass implements such as these.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Pen manufacture has a long history. Reeds have been made into pens for several thousands of years in the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and Europe. The most reliable is the common reed, Phragmites australis from Iraq. 

For Arabic, Persian, Ottoman and Urdu calligraphy, the reed is cut with a strong, sharp knife and the nib is trimmed left oblique: the precise angle varying according to the script you wish to write (traditional Hebrew scribes also used a similar technique). For Roman and Greek letters which, in contrast to Arabic and Hebrew, are written from left to right, the reed nib is cut in the opposite direction: right oblique.

In Europe from the early middle ages onwards, the quill pen became more widely used than the reed; it was at this same time that the scroll form of the book gave way to the codex. With parchment or vellum becoming more available than papyrus, the quill had a natural synergy with this writing surface: both quill and parchment are made from the same natural substance, collagen. 

Metal pens were also used in Europe since Roman times but high volume manufacture had to wait until the Industrial Revolution. James Perry of Manchester began producing metal nibs in 1819. By 1835 Perry’s company was stamping out nearly 5,250,000 nibs a year.

In the East the brush held sway: they were, and still are, made from a variety of animal hair (horse, goat, weasel), each with different properties. Horse is springy and not very absorbent; weasel is the opposite. But brushes can actually be made from many types of fibres, from hammered-out bamboo or even chicken feathers. They encourage a very different relationship to the writing surface than a metal pen. Sensitive touch and precise movement become more critical.

Chinese calligraphy manual

Chinese calligraphy manual

One of the distinctive features of traditional Chinese calligraphy is that the brush is held at a right angle to the page, and the whole arm moves as one writes.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Printing

Printing, the technique of directly transferring an image from one surface onto another, is an ancient art and begins with seal-making. Engraved seals were important in Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire and ancient China.

By the 8th century and probably earlier, the Chinese had found a way of cutting calligraphic texts into wooden blocks that could be used to make prints (xylography). A calligrapher wrote the text on paper that was glued to the wooden block; the wood engraver then cut away the background leaving the writing and illustrations standing proud. The block was inked and a print taken from it by rubbing down a thin sheet of paper on to the surface.

The earliest known woodblock printed text was discovered in the 1960s during the excavation of a stupa at the Pulguk-sa Temple in Korea and is believed to date from 704–751 CE. The oldest dated complete printed book of block printing is the Diamond Sutra, found at Dunhuang in China, which bears the date of 11 May 868 CE.

The Diamond Sutra

Frontispiece of the Diamond Sutra showing a woodblock print of the Buddha

This copy of the Diamond Sutra is the world's earliest complete and dated, printed book.

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Held by © British Library

By the 11th century, printing using a system of movable moulded characters had been developed in China. In the Yuan period (1279–1368) wooden type was being used, and perhaps as early as the late 13th century printing from movable metal types was happening in Korea.

In Europe, Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith from Mainz, Germany, was the first to print with moveable type. There seems to be no direct connections between his invention and developments in East Asia. While the Gutenberg Bible of 1455 is his masterpiece, he had begun with smaller projects from as early as 1452.

Gutenberg Bible

Title page of the Gutenberg Bible

Johann Gutenberg’s Bible is probably the most famous Bible in the world. It is the earliest full-scale work printed in Europe using moveable type.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

By 1480 there were presses all across Europe. The printing press came to Britain in 1476 when William Caxton (1422–1491) printed Geoffrey Chaucer’s (c.1342–1400) The Canterbury Tales.

First printed edition of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

Canterbury Tales

Drawing on his time Flanders, the type Caxton used to print this volume was modelled on the handwriting of the best Flemish scribes.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

Lithography, invented by Aloys Senefelder (1771–1834) in the 1790s, offered an alternative printing method. He devised techniques for writing on a surface (originally a very smooth stone) using a tool that was slightly waxy or greasy. The stone was wetted. Next, ink was rolled out across its surface: it would not stick to the dampened areas (which remained un-inked) but would adhere to those parts that had been covered by the waxy writing or drawing, and from this, a print could now be taken.

As a result, handwriting and drawings could be reproduced directly, and this became a popular method of reproduction for cursive (joined-up) and non-Latin scripts such as Arabic, as well as musical manuscripts and colourful advertising that combined text with illustration.

During the 20th century, a large number of different printing and copying systems were introduced into workplaces. Automated composing systems and many propriety methods for copying documents were supplemented in the 1950s with photocomposition, using projected images as a means of composing a page of type that could then be printed using lithographic plates.

Typing

The other development in the later part of the 19th century was the introduction of the typewriter. In Europe ideas for the improved mechanisation of writing had been experimented with since the beginning of the 1700s but it was the Remington typewriter, released in the USA in 1872, that established the standard model.

For the English language it was the QWERTY keyboard that remained the most influential and is still in use today. The randomisation of keys scattered the most popular letters across the keyboard and prevented jamming of adjacent keys. This allowed the operator to press a key and send an individual hammer, carved with a letter, towards an ink-impregnated ribbon that marked the paper. This paper was fed through the machine line by line.

Typewriters allowed the operator to write up to about 150 words a minute as opposed to 30 with pen and paper. Carbon paper enabled several copies of a document to be made simultaneously. Typewriters were developed for many different writing systems.

Learn more about the evolution of writing at our Writing: Making Your Mark exhibition. On until 27 August 2019.

Double Pigeon Chinese Typewriter

Chinese typewriter

The Double Pigeon Chinese typewriter became iconic in Maoist China (1949–76).

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The big leap forward to our present-day technology began in the 1960s and ’70s. From shortly after World War II, computers had screens and keyboards attached to them for programming purposes. By the mid-1970s it was clear that this configuration could be used for writing itself: word-processing, as it came to be called.

Eventually it became possible to think of these tools as playing a role in shaping the layout of documents as well.

Apple IIe computer

Apple IIe computer

Apple II computers were among the first microcomputers to be produced.

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In the course of a couple of decades, computers – which had once been thought of as giant calculating machines that planned national economies or placed men on the moon – were reconceived as new writing tools, in succession to the quill pen and the typewriter.

Electronic technologies have proved highly significant for writing. Today they cover SMS or text messages on mobile devices, as well as internet protocol-based messaging services, such as Apple’s iMessage, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Viber, WeChat (China) and many others.

New formats challenge our creativity (the character limit on messages, for instance) resulting in new spellings (c u 2night), acronyms (LOL) and the arrival of emoticons and emojis: figures that can disambiguate short texts and stand for a variety of feelings.

New digital designs for letterforms have also become necessary because messages must work across multiple devices, using different resolutions and formats. Type design and publication in digital media is flourishing.

Learn more about the evolution of writing at our Writing: Making Your Mark exhibition. On until 27 August 2019.

  • Ewan Clayton
  • Ewan is Professor in Design at the University of Sunderland and external advisor to the British Library's 2019 exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark. He is a core faculty member of the Royal School of Drawing and is a calligrapher.