From Pens to Keys–The Complete History of Writing Tools

From Pens to Keys–The Complete History of Writing Tools

Writing isn’t what it used to be.

That is, writing is no longer an ink-stained task of scrawling on parchment. Getting your thoughts down is faster and easier than ever. Indeed, as voice-recognition software continues to improve, using your fingers to bang out sentences on a keyboard may soon look charmingly quaint.

Here, at a glance, is the evolution of the technology that shapes how we write.

Writing by hand

Writers in bygone centuries had to dip reed or bamboo pens, ink brushes, or feather quills into ink, then place them on papyrus or paper. This notoriously messy process prompted the invention in 1636 of a reservoir pen made from two quills. One was sealed with a cork and held the ink, which was squeezed through a tiny hole.

By 1827, a fountain pen with an ink chamber in the handle had earned a patent in France, but it wasn’t until 1888 that the first ballpoint pen, featuring a tiny moving ball in a socket in the tip, followed suit. Next came felt-tip pens in the 1960s, rollerball pens in the 1970s, and erasable pens in 1979.

In recent years, sales of that other erasable stalwart, the pencil, have fallen on although colored pencils have thanks to the advent of adult coloring books. Meanwhile, pen sales continue to rise slightly.


The first commercially successful typewriter was invented by Americans in 1868. Just a few years later, in 1875, Mark Twain an admiring letter to his brother:

The machine has several virtues. I believe it will print faster than I can write. One may lean back in his chair & work it. It piles an awful stack of words on one page. It don’t muss things or scatter ink blots around. Of course it saves paper.

How best to operate such machines was controversial at first: Should the user type with just two fingers, or would eight be more efficient? And should one’s gaze be fixed on the buttons or on the page? But the arrangement of the keys – the now-familiar QWERTY design – was widely embraced, and it has barely changed since.

The QWERTY arrangement the work of Christopher Latham Sholes, whose flawed early attempts placed the letters alphabetically in two rows. This led to frequently paired letters, such as “st” and “th,” mashing close together and jamming the machine. So, collaborating with an educator name Amos Densmore, Sholes rearranged the letters according to their popularity. At first this confused typists, but with fewer jams, it ultimately made for a smoother writing process.

First digital, then mobile

Typewriters were widespread for roughly a century before giving way to the rise of computers. Apple, RadioShack, and Commodore all began manufacturing keyboards for their models in the 1970s. (For a throwback, check out this ancient RadioShack for the TRS-80.)

With technology’s inexorable drive toward the smaller and sleeker, the late 1980s offered an early glimpse of what would be recognized today as primordial text messaging. Devices like 1989’s promised typing on mobile phones, albeit with a multi-tap approach that meant each number on the keypad mapped to several letters of the alphabet – what’s known as an

By 1993, the IBM Simon delivered the world’s first full QWERTY keyboard and touchscreen; in 1997, the This Is How to Correctly Use Commas in All of Your WritingWritingThis Is How to Correctly Use Commas in All of Your WritingHow to Write Better Short StoriesWritingHow to Write Better Short StoriesHow Should I Use There, Their, and They're?WritingHow Should I Use There, Their, and They're?What PS Means and How to Use It Correctly in Your EmailWritingWhat PS Means and How to Use It Correctly in Your EmailSorry for the Late Reply: How to Apologize for a Delayed ResponseWritingSorry for the Late Reply: How to Apologize for a Delayed Response

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