How Did People Write Before Pens and Pencils?

The entirety of human history consists of writing. Civilizations spanning most of the human existence have used some form of writing to record their lives, their culture, and their practices. But what did people use to write before our modern pens and pencils?

The closest predecessor to the modern pen was the quill pen, but older civilizations used various materials including bronze styluses, animal hair, and reed pens to write down records and express their thoughts.

There’s a lot of variety behind our modern pens and pencils, and most of that variety comes from the material that people were writing on. The rest of this article will explore the history of writing to discover what people used to write with before pens and pencils.

Earliest Human Writing Tools

Simple as it may seem, some of the earliest writing discovered was scratched into cavern walls using pretty much anything sharp lying around― bits of metal, sharp rocks, pretty much anything― to etch their thoughts into stone.

Sometimes, pigments were used to smear color onto an image, and after the discovery of fire, historians believe charred sticks would be used to burn an image or drawing.

Utensils for Writing on Clay

How did people write before pens and pencils?

Some of the earliest writing in human history has been written on clay. With its malleable surface and the ability to etch meaning and design into its surface, it’s no wonder ancient civilizations chose clay as their writing tablets.

While the idea of etching something into clay to make a design has been used for millennia, archeologists have discovered some of the oldest writing from around 3000 B.C. impressed into clay.

The tool of choice? Reeds. Sturdy enough to make straight lines, reeds are one of the earliest known writing tools known today.

Amusingly, reeds were too impractical to reliable draw curves, which, according to Bright Hub Education, is why early writing like Sumerian cuneiform is composed of triangles and straight lines.

Early Chinese Writing Tools

How did people write before pens and pencils?
Ancient Chinese “Bamboo Writing Slips”.

The most readily available writing surface in China, bamboo, required a different toolset than its Mesopotamian counterpart.

Many early Chinese tools involved paintbrushes and knives made from bronze that was used to inscribe writing onto the bamboo. Such writing was then filled with ink for clarity.

People in the East would also use brushes made from animal hair for writing. These fine-pointed, flexible tools allowed writing to be done in broad strokes (no pun intended), and animal hair brushes would be used as tools for calligraphy for years to come.

In fact, the very name pencil comes from the French pincel and Latin penicillus, meaning “little tail.”In Southeast Asia and India, knife-like styluses were used to write on palm leaves.

Such a stylus would have a sharp edge for writing and a flat end for leveling the surface of the leaves after writing.

Writing Tools for Wax

How did people write before pens and pencils?
Wax writing tablet containing part of a Roman will

The Romans used wax, a malleable organic compound, as their preferred surface for writing beginning around 500 B.C.

A typical writing board would be used for a variety of things including recording business accounts and jotting down notes. Wax would see use for many centuries in various civilizations due to its portability and reusability.

The tool of choice for writing was a bronze stylus similar to those in Southeast Asia, with a sharp end for scraping the wax and a wide end for smoothing the wax back over as a kind of eraser.

The Advent of Papyrus and Quill Pens

How did people write before pens and pencils?

The ancient Egyptians, who invented papyrus sometime in the third century B.C., primarily used reed pens that were dipped in ink. Papyrus, being such a useful writing surface, would go on to revolutionize the nature of writing across the world.

In fact, it would become so popular in medieval times that the supply of reeds began to dwindle, leading to the development of parchment, which was modified animal skin. Scribes of this time would use a bone stylus with a metal tip called a plummet to outline their work.

Quill Pen on Desk
Photo by Neil Conway

Then, they would use a pen made from flight feathers known as a quill pen. The quill pen became the go-to replacement for reed pens since they were sturdier and could withstand much more use. Filling reed pens with ink was a messy business, too.

Eventually, the nib, the point of a pen, would be made from metal for more consistent writing, although quill pens still had their downfalls.

Early Modern Pencils and Pens

The modern pencil, a stick of graphite with a wood exterior, was created by Nicholas-Jacques Conte in 1795. Later, in 1827, Petrache Poenaru would invent the fountain pen.

With steel nibs being created just three years afterward, quill pens became obsolete, and companies began to capitalize and improve on the growing market for convenient pens.

The ballpoint pen was soon to follow in 1888, invented by American John Jacob Loud, with the goal being to write on uneven or rough surfaces. Unfortunately, the first prototype proved unsuccessful until Laszlo Biro patented an improved prototype in 1938.

Conclusion

The history of writing has come a long way, although what we write with hasn’t actually changed much in shape or size. Some of the earliest writing was done with sharp reeds and scraped into clay tablets.

Old codes, laws, and historical records are still recorded to this day on clay tablets. In China, knives and paintbrushes were used to write on bamboo, with sharp-edged styluses becoming prominent in the Middle Ages for writing on wax tablets.

Such styluses were outfitted with a fan-shaped tail end for smoothing the wax over if an error was made.

The popularity of papyrus as a writing material would prompt the use of quill pens as the primary writing tool throughout much of recent human history since quill pens were more resilient and not as messy as reed pens.

Eventually, with the discovery of graphite, and the evolution of the quill pen, graphite pencils, and fountain pens were invented. With the advent of new technology, the modern pen was constantly revised and modified until it reached the design we know today.

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