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 hard times, although colored pencils have exploded in popularity, 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 dashed off 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 owes to 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 commercial 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 Motorola MicroTAC 9800X 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 alphanumeric keypad.

By 1993, the IBM Simon delivered the world’s first full QWERTY keyboard and touchscreen; in 1997, the appear poised to obviate many people’s need for other computers altogether.

Talking with machines

Before Siri, there was Audrey, a 1952 Bell Laboratories speech-recognition system that could understand only digits.

Because computing was still in its infancy at the time, this technology evolved slowly; IBM’s “Shoebox” machine could understand 16 words spoken in English in 1962, but adding hundreds of additional entries to the vocabulary of machines was a decades-long process. It wasn’t until 1990 that Dragon introduced a consumer-targeted speech-recognition product, Dragon Dictate, for a whopping $9,000.

Until fairly recently, such technologies plateaued at around 80 percent accuracy. But in the last few years, Apple and Google devices have made typing by voice easier than tapping words into a screen, and this technology looks increasingly crucial as competitors like Amazon, with its Echo device, also crowd in. Such gadgets not only sift your words out of any surrounding noises but also analyze the linguistic context to better understand precisely what you’re saying.

Is handwriting obsolete?

As machines continue to improve, is old-timey ink on paper bound the way of the dinosaur?

One survey found hundreds of people who said they hadn’t written a single thing by hand in over a month. And while current U.S. educational standards don’t require cursive, lessons in keyboarding are mandatory, down to grades where students have barely learned to write by hand. Indeed, even as many of us aren’t sure what drawer we last saw a notepad in, we now spend hours each day texting and writing online.

Of course, longhand still has its advantages; studies suggest it’s a better way to take notes than on a laptop. That’s not just because computers can be an endless source of distraction, either. Rather, researchers found that when you take notes by hand, because you can’t keep up with everything that’s being said verbatim, you instead reframe it in your own words, prompting deeper thought than rote transcription. There is also evidence that writing letters out cements the ability to recognize those characters, both for children learning to read and for adults studying foreign languages.

Whether you still like the feel of pen on paper or prefer the glow of a touchscreen or a machine that takes dictation, you’re still getting your ideas down and communicating, albeit in different ways. And that’s really been the point all along, says Anne Trubek, an author and former professor at Oberlin College, referring millennia-old forms of writing on clay tablets:

What we want from writing – and what the Sumerians wanted – is cognitive automaticity, the ability to think as fast as possible, freed as much as can be from the strictures of whichever technology we must use to record our thoughts,” Trubek wrote. “This is what typing does for millions. It allows us to go faster, not because we want everything faster in our hyped-up age, but for the opposite reason: we want more time to think.

So what about you? What’s your favorite way to capture an idea in writing?

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