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What is a Pen?

Updated on November 3, 2021

A pen is a pointed instrument used for writing in ink. The most common pens today are fountain pens and ball-point pens. In addition, there are many specialized pens for drawing.

In ancient times, reed pens were used for writing on papyrus. Quill pens, made from swan or goose feathers, came into use about the 7th century a.d. Metal pens did not come into general use until the beginning of the 19th century. The metal pen usually consists of a small pointed nib, or point, and a holder. The nib may be replaced when worn. Like earlier pens, the nib of the metal pen must be dipped into ink as it is used.

Fountain pens came into use at the end of the 19th century. The fountain pen is equipped with an ink reservoir and a specially designed nib that allows the ink to flow in small steady amounts to the point. The reservoir is usually a pliable synthetic sac that fills with ink when depressed and released. The recently developed cartridge fountain pen makes use of replaceable plastic cartridges containing ink.

The ball-point pen was developed at the end of World War II and is probably the pen most commonly used today. It has a tube containing thick ink that comes into contact with a tiny metal ball at the tip of the pen. The ball is free moving and rolls the ink onto the paper.

Artists and draftsmen may use many kinds of pens for drawing, including those having points of different thicknesses. Most drawing pens are made of metal, but some are made of porous plastic or felt.

Quill Pens

The introduction of paper rendered necessary pens of finer character, and quills of the goose and swan next came into use, and for extremely fine writing those of other birds,, as of the crow, were found well adapted. A great trade grew up in these articles, and continued for several centuries. Poland and Russia were largely engaged in it, and immense flocks of geese were raised in those countries chiefly for their quills. In a single year Saint Petersburg furnished to England over 27,000,000 quills. Germany and the Netherlands were also large producers of goose quills. From each goose the average number of good quills obtained was only 10 or 12, though sometimes they amounted to 20. As they were plucked from the wing they were soft and tough, and covered within and without with a thin membrane. They were first sorted according to length and thickness of the barrel into primes, seconds and pinions, and were then buried for a short time in hot sand which dried the outside skin, so that it was easily scraped off, and the inner lining became shriveled and detached. This treatment was called, from having been practised in Holland, "dutching." After this the quills were hardened by dipping them into a boiling solution of alum or of diluted nitric acid, which also rendered the barrel yellow. A portion of the barbs was then stripped off, and the quills were tied in bundles for the market.

Gold Pens

The gold pen is an American product and the world's supply is practically manufactured in New York. In 1823, John Isaac Hawkins, an American, residing in England, imbedded pieces of diamond and ruby in the points of tortoise shell pens, which were softened in water to receive the stones. The same manufacturer, hearing that bits of an extremely hard native alloy of iridium and osmium, sent by Dr. Wallaston to a penmaker to be used for points, had been returned as too hard for working, obtained these for his own experiments and was the first to produce the famous "diamond points" soldered to gold pens. The manufacture of these pens made but slow progress, great skill, the result of long continued experiments, being necessary to produce the exact shape suited for the required elasticity of the pen and to combine this with the proper size and form of the points. They were moreover costly as well on account of the metal employed as the labor expended in the manufacture. The right to make gold pens was purchased of Hawkins by Dr. Cleveland, an American clergyman then in England, who on his return induced Levi Brown, a watchmaker in Detroit, to undertake their manufacture. This was about the year 1835. The experiment was attended with little success. Brown removed in 1840 to New York and there introduced the business, which gradually increased in importance as the quality of the pens was improved and the price diminished by their more rapid production. At first the pens were cut with scissors into shape from a thin flat strip of gold and a slit was cut in the nib; a bit of iridium was soldered to each point separately, and the points were then rounded up into shape with a mallet upon a stick. The inferior pens thus made by hand sold for $5 to $10 each. The first machines and almost the only important ones in use applicable to the different branches of this work, were invented by John Rendell, who systematized the process, giving to each workman his peculiar branch and thus a nicety and certainty of good work were attained by each one which was essential to the perfection of the pen. In the process now in use the pure gold as it comes from the United States Assay Office is melted and alloyed with copper and silver to a 14-carat degree of purity. It is then cast in the form of a bar which is rolled into strips 1.32 of an inch in thickness. The blanks are stamped out on a screw press. A notch is cut in the tip of each blank and a bit of iridium soldered in to form the wearing point. The pen is then "marked" with the maker's name, and curved to proper shape in a suitable press. The tip is then slit at the exact center by a revolving copper disc coated with emery. The pen is brought to its desired shape and flexibility by grinding on copper wheels fed with emery and finally polished on buffing wheels coated with rouge. The pen then goes to an expert penman who tests its writing qualities and corrects any defects by regrinding with emery.

Fountain Pens

These are pens fitted with an ink reservoir from which the point is supplied by capillary or other action. The modern fountain pen derives from the original type invented by Lewis Edson Waterman, American inventor, in 1884. It consists of five basic parts: a pen nib or point; a bar feed to regulate the ink flow; a connecting piece between the bar feed and the barrel; a barrel; and a cap which either screws on or slips on, as in the friction type cap, over the nib of the pen and protects it from damage. Improvements on these generic parts have been made, but the basic concepts are the same. An automatic filler is a major improvement. It is constructed of flexible rubber shaped in the form of a tube which fits into the pen barrel. This rubber tube acts as the ink reservoir which is filled by the operation of a lever or plunger located on the barrel. Still another improvement is the screw force feed which overcomes the drawback of the clogging of the ink channel through drying. The force feed is reversed to fill the pen. The fountain pen barrels and caps, at one time, were made from crude rubber. Generally they are now made from plastic. Most fountain pen manufacturers do not make their own plastic, but buy it from outside sources. It comes in tube form and these tubes are cut to the proper lengths and one end is sealed. The end is sealed in one of several ways. The most inexpensive method is to heat the tube and place it in a mold. Another way is to insert an internal or an external plug. These plugs are cemented to the tube with acetone, a chemical solvent used in the making of plastic. When plugs are used, the desired shape is obtained by turning on a lathe. After the barrel or cap has been shaped, regardless of the method used to seal the end, it must be surface hardened. This is done by placing in an oven kept at a temperature of approximately 130°F. This process takes from 2 to 10 days.

Steel Pens

The immense consumption of quills led to the invention of the steel pens, which appeared first in England in 1803. They cost originally $2 to $3 each, although the price was reduced to 12 cents in the course of 10 years. No substantial advance was made in the manufacture until after the adoption of drop presses, in 1825. It was not till after 1830 that steel pens began to come into extensive use, owing to improvements introduced by James Perry, Joseph Gillott, Sir Josiah Mason and other manufacturers. The lowest-priced pens are now made almost entirely by machinery, but the finer qualities require a deal of hand labor in finishing. For many years all the steel for the manufacture of pens was imported from Sheffield, England, and for certain makes of pens the steel is still brought from there. But American steel makers have been very successful in supplying a satisfactory 1 per cent carbon steel which answers every purpose, and the importations are very small. As it comes to the pen manufacturer the steel is in sheets about five feet long, 19 inches wide, and 2%ooo of an inch thick. This is cut into strips 19 inches long and just wide enough to cut a double row of pens, with their points interlapping alternately. The strips are first annealed for several hours, and then placed in a tumbling barrel containing a "pickle" of dilute sulphuric acid to remove the scale of oxide. The strip is then cold-rolled by successive reductions to a thickness of %ooo of an inch - requiring about 20 passes through the rolls. The strips are passed into the hands of a girl, seated at a press, who, by means of a die and punch corresponding, cuts out pieces the shape of the pen, called blanks, at the rate of 40,000 per day of eight hours, some 200 different styles of dies being required to produce the variety demanded by the market. The next stage is called piercing, which is cutting out by a punch the central hole in the nib, and at this stage also the lateral slits are cut. The metal has become so hard through the repeated rolling and stamping that it is necessary to anneal it. This is effected by placing the blanks in cast-iron pots, and raising them to a red heat in a muffle-furnace, afterward leaving them to cool slowly. Up to this stage the blank is a flat piece of steel; it is now stamped with the maker s name and the number, and is then passed to the raising-press, where it is rendered concave by being pressed into a groove by a sinker. The next process is hardening, which is done by heating the pens to a red heat in an iron box or muffle, and then plunging them in oil. The process of tempering follows; and then they are scoured and cleaned by immersion in soda water and dilute sulphuric acid successively, and by friction in a tumbling barrel with sand and similar solid substances. The outside of the nib is then ground first lengthwise and then crosswise, which is done by different persons upon separate emery grinding-wheels. Next comes the most delicate operation, cutting the central slit, upon the nicety of which a great part of the value of the pen depends. The pen is placed lengthwise on a chisel fixed in the bed of a shearing machine; the descending lever carries another chisel, which passes down, just clearing the other with the minutest accuracy. The points of the tip are now very sharp and jagged: they are smoothed by being tumbled in pots for 30 hours with granulated fire-clay bricks. They then go to the inspectors' tables which are of black glass. Here each pen is scrupulously examined by an expert for accuracy of cutting, piercing, marking, raising, grinding, slitting, tempering, and finish of point. Those which are passed as perfect are then polished in buffing boxes. If they are to remain their natural steel gray color they are at once lacquered. Or they may be plated with gold, silver or bronze. Or they may be colored brown, black or blue, by being heated in a revolving metal cylinder over a charcoal stove, and removing them when the desired tint is attained; they are then varnished by lac dissolved in naphtha. After being dried by heat they are counted mechanically into small boxes ready for the market. A large proportion of the cheaper grades of steel pens are made on automatic machines which turn out the finished pens ready for lacquering. Pens made from stainless steel are highly resistant to the acids used in writing inks and are nontarnishing.

Ball Point Pen

A writing instrument similar in shape and size to the fountain pen, but differing in that it utilizes a minute ball bearing instead of the conventional point and contains sufficient ink of a heavy gelatin type to perform without refilling for some time. The pen functions by the motion of the ball bearing which rolls the ink from the barrel onto the paper or other surface. The basic idea was patented in the United States in 1888 by John Loud, whose instrument was used to mark leather fabrics. Another device was patented by Van Vechten Riesberg in 1916. On both, the patent was allowed to expire without exploitation. The pen was first introduced in America as a writing instrument by Milton Reynolds, Chicago manufacturer. Some advantages of this type pen are that it writes for a long period without refilling; there is no leakage; and the ink dries immediately on the writing surface. In general construction the principal is a ball, a millimeter in diameter, seated in the tip of the pen so that it revolves freely in all directions but with extremely fine tolerance. As the ball turns it deposits ink on the writing surface and draws more ink from the reservoir by a natural phenomenon known as capillary action. Since in the capillaries of the pen, viscosity of the fluid must be suited to the size of the tube, ball point ink is thick. At first printer's ink was used. But now most of the manufacturers have devised their own formulas, usually containing a dye in mixture with an organic solvent. This pen has been so improved and lowered in price in recent years that it has all but displaced the fountain pen and the mechanical pencil as a writing implement. It is rivaled in popularity only by the wooden pencil.


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