The pen has undoubtedly been mightier than the sword as it is an instrument of learning not fighting. The great works of literature, religion, science, philosophy, politics and law were all written in pen and ink. The renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment were all driven by the ability of minds to put pen to paper. As a piece of technology it remains a mainstay of learning. Indelible writing, with pens, is a truly simple yet remarkable piece of technology. So where did it come from?
To write one needs something to hold in the hand which makes a mark. Cave painters used sharpened objects to inscribe on rock, sharpened reeds were used in Mesopotamia but it was the Greeks who first used a ‘stylus’ made of bone, wood or metal. They used this to inscribe wax tablets. The Romans then introduced bamboo pens to hold ink as you wrote. About 700 AD the feather-based, quill pen was invented.
Fountain then ballpoint pen
It was over a thousand years, in 1884, before the fountain pen was invented by Waterman. Necessity was the mother of invention when one of Waterman’s clients leaked ink over a contract and lost the deal in the time it took to draw up another contract. The internal capillary that regulated the flow of ink did the trick.
Laslo Biro, a Hungarian journalist, patented the ballpoint pen in 1938. He sold this patent to the British Government in 1943 but failed to take out a patent in the US. It could deliver ink evenly and smoothly as the ball rolled across the paper and dried quickly. It was a massive success.
The cheap, light and easy to use pen put writing in the hands of the learner. It is a learner-centric piece of technology that moved text on from the printing of separate letters to cursive writing, where letters were simplified and could be joined as one wrote the word. This is what gave rise to upper and lower case letters.
The pedagogic weakness of the pen is that it is easy to smudge and difficult to erase. This makes creative and critical writing more difficult as it also limits editing, redrafting and reordering, the essence of good writing skills. It actually encourages the regurgitation of pre-prepared, memorised answers in examinations. In this sense a pencil is superior and keyboard far better in terms in terms of erasure, deletion, insertion, cutting and pasting.
Of course, this begs the obvious question as to why most education systems still require pen work in examinations, when students barely use them. One could also mention the insidious ‘red pen’ marking, highlighting failure, rather than constructive, formative feedback.
As any teacher and parent will tell you, pens also leak and can cause havoc, staining clothes, bags and flesh. Crude adolescent tattoos are also an unexpected consequence. Then again, they also make excellent pea-shooters!
The advantage of the pen with ink over the reed used in cuneiform or stylus, is that it is much quicker to use for curved, cursive writing and leaves clear lines. It has been improved through split nibs, metal nibs, fountain pens, ballpoints but for nearly four millennia remained the mainstay for writing, until the advent of pencils, typewriters and computer keyboards.
Nothing is more dangerous in classrooms than the pencil. They’re the perfect weapon, used to poke, prick and even stab others. Yet the humble pencil is a key piece of technology, used by almost every learner at some stage in their lives. Who hasn’t enjoyed the feeling of freedom of flow in writing and drawing that the pencil produces? Then there’s the simple fact that it can be rubbed out, your mistakes erased. That is what makes the pencil a great piece of technology.
Pencils are said to contain ‘lead’, the graphite and clay mixture has no lead. It was called ‘lead’ as the graphite was thought to be a lead ore in the early days of chemistry. However, the paint on the wooden casing contained lead up until the middle of the 20th century and did pose a risk to health.
Who invented the pencil?
Although the Italians Simonio and Lyndiana Bernacotti were the first to insert a graphite rod within a wooden case in the middle of the 16th century, the two wooden halves later carved and stuck together, the person usually identified as the inventor of the modern pencil was Nicholas Jacques Conte in 1795.
He was an officer in Napoleon’s army and distinguished himself by organising a balloon demonstration on the Egyptian campaign. The first balloon went up in flames, convincing the Egyptians that it was a weapon of war, the second was successful and supposedly witnessed by 100,000 in Cairo. But he is now remembered as he inventor of the pencil.
The only source of solid graphite in the world is in Cumbria England, where solid graphite pencils were cut from blocks but as France was at war with Britain they could not import graphite, so the ingenious Conte was asked, in 1795, to come up with a solution. He researched the problem and found that ground graphite could be mixed with clay then shaped them into thin sticks and baked them in a kiln. The thin sticks were then placed between two wooden halves and glued together. And so the pencil was born.
Pencils and pedagogy
The pencil protected by its cedar casing, as cedar doesn’t splinter when sharpened, stops the writer’s hands from being marked. It is also a superior drawing instrument as it can do lines of different width, texture and shading.
The marks it makes, however, are very durable, but can be erased. Erasure is important in learning as the pencil forgives failure. Rub it out and start over. In this sense it has a clear pedagogic advantage in dealing with ‘failure’. It allows the writer to erase and rewrite. This was made even more convenient when the eraser was added to the end of the pencil, patented in 1858 by Hymen Lipman. They can also be used in zero gravity, which is why the early space missions used pencils. This is particularly useful when learning how to write.
If we compare the pencil with the pen, we see that there is a pedagogic difference. It is more difficult to draw with a pen (apart from precise line drawing) and the pencil gives freedom of movement, flow and vast range of line width and shading. Pencils are wonderfully flexible.
Mobile the new pen and pencil?
The shift from the pen and pencil to keyboard on computers and mobiles raises some key issues for teaching and learning. First, a radical change in the forms of writing towards shorter, sharper txts, tweets, posts and emails. Second, a change in the input devices towards keyboards. Third, a shift towards writing on mobile devices.
New forms of writing skill have become essential in the modern world: txts, tweets, posts, blogs and email. This is accelerating as new forms of written communication emerge. Indeed there has been a swing towards txting, at the expense of voice on mobiles, showing that there is a rise in writing by young people. Never have so many young people written so frequently to so many other people. Writing has moved from being a deliberate, formal activity to an ambient, every day activity, with mass participation. Yet these forms of writing are poorly understood, and rarely taught in schools.
A corollary of this renaissance of writing by young people (increasingly older) is the use of keyboards, whether physical or touchscreen. This is a separate skill from writing with pen or pencil. It needs to be acquired and few workplaces require one to use a pencil or pen, most use keyboards. So why are keyboard skills largely ignored in schools an in exams?
The ubiquity of mobile devices has led to massive, popular use of txting. Txting has now overtaken voice as the primary use of these devices. But also posts on Facebook, Tweets on Twitter, posts on blogs and email. Then there’s the calendar, note taking and other functions and apps that require writing.
All of this points towards an irreversible change in our writing and reading culture. Writing has become more common but there’s a much greater range of styles. In terms of size we now have everything from tiny txts, 140 character Tweets, posts on Facebook/other social media sites and email. These short form writing tasks take skill. Being concise has long been the key skill in good writing and it is not easy to master. Far from being illiterate, most young people have developed superb writing skills in short-form writing.
This is not to say that long form writing is unimportant. Reports, well argued essays, articles and books still have to be written. But these are far less important for the vast majority of people than short form writing. In any case, the writing technology of keyboards and word processors have also revolutionised long form writing, allowing deletion, insertion and cut & paste.
Pens and pencils put learning in the hands of learners, and with pencils the marvellous addition of easy erasure. They facilitated the quick flow of writing, gliding across the paper and also gave the gift of subtle, shaded sketching and drawing to anyone who wanted to pursue that skill. However, we have to admit that the days of the pen and pencil are numbered or at least limited to a minor role in writing, as keyboards, computers and mobile devices have already become the dominant technologies of writing.