Conception to mass creation

Handwriting – one of mankind’s greatest inventions – has quite literally written the future by allowing us to pass on ideas from one generation to the next. Today it's hard to imagine how society could have advanced without it.

On paper it doesn’t sound as if writing has come all that far from its primitive beginnings, but the tools we have used have changed considerably and today’s high tech tablets are completely different to the stone slabs of the ancient world.


Knots, notches and symbols

British Museum

Prof Irving Finkel MASTER

Professor Irving Finkel from the British Museum's Middle East department, with the ancient Babylonia tablet he deciphered in 2009.

Tying knots in string and making notches in bone to record information can be dated back to early Neolithic man.

Around 8000BC the Azilians in southern France had begun painting symbols of squiggles, stripes and spots onto stone. By 5500BC the Vincas – which was also known as the Danube Valley civilisation – had created 210 symbols which they cut into wet clay. These symbols pre-date writing by over 1,000 years and are arguably the earliest form of writing ever found.

World's oldest writing

Pictographs were drawn on clay tablets to record goods and workers' rations. They were the precursors of cuneiform writing.

Metropolitan Museum of Art



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Archeological site of the ancient Mesopotamian capital of Uruk, the first true city in the world and one of the regions where handwriting. began.

Influenced by the Vinca culture, in around 3000BC the Sumerians of Mesopotamia began carving pictographs in clay.

It was in Uruk, the first true city in the world, that scribes began to recognise that drawing realistic images took a long time and so came up with a standardised set of marks, each denoting a given object. The system took its name, cuneiform – meaning wedge-shaped – which were made by means of a blunt reed for a stylus.

The British Museum: Explore the world of a scribeUruk, Iraq: The first city and the origins of writingExcerpt from The Cyrus Cylinder: The British Museum

They were the first attempts by our human ancestors to make a permanent record of their surroundings. Today's writing is a direct continuation.

Dr Jacob Dahl, Oxford University on proto-Elamites – the first writing ever to use syllables.




MASTER Wyman fragment

A 3rd Century AD fragment of ancient text on papyrus which sold for £301,250 in 2012.

Often the instruments used to inscribe the marks of cuneiform were made from papyrus reeds.

In ancient Egypt they started to use reed pens to write on papyrus, a paper like material made from the pith of the eponymous plant. The sheets of papyrus could be joined together and rolled into a scroll, creating a primitive type of book. It’s believed that much of the New Testament was written on these papyrus scrolls. The English word 'paper' is derived from the Greek word papuros and the Latin word papyrus.

High prices paid for ancient papyrus rollsThe Wyman Fragment at Sotheby's

The iconic Wyman fragment shows parts of Paul’s epistle to the Romans. At the time Christianity was still an illegal cult in the Roman empire.

Sotheby's catalogue notes, July 2012

6th Century


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Quill pens were replaced with the invention of the dip pen, the metal-nib pen, the fountain pen and eventually the ball point pen.

From the 6th to the 19th Century, quills replaced reed pens in the Western world as they allowed for much finer strokes on animal hide.

The best quills were made from goose, swan or, later, turkey feathers and all are graded by the order in which they are fixed in the wing – the expert calligrapher would use the first feather. Quills were cured to harden them for use. This involved exposing them to hot ash or water before pressing them into shape.

How to make a quill pen - English Heritage

The knife used to cut your pen from a flight feather is called a 'pen knife' which is where the term originated.

Jennifer Smith, Ferrers Household, English Heritage Living History



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Nicolas Jacques Conte inventor of the pencil 464756139-(1).

Nicolas-Jacques Conté: painter, balloonist, army officer, and inventor of the modern pencil.

The modern pencil was developed in 1795 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté who created rods by mixing powdered graphite with clay, then fired them in a kiln.

The hardness of the graphite rods could be changed by adjusting the ratio with clay. Sticks of sawn graphite had previously been used throughout England for a number of years. Referring to the middle of a pencil as lead can be traced to the 16th Century, when a graphite deposit in the Lake District was mistaken for the substance.

Sharp insights into pencils

The computer dictates how you do something, whereas with a pencil you're totally free.

James Dyson



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A truly modern office in New York with one of the earliest typewriters.

After a number of earlier incarnations, the first commercially viable typewriter was invented in 1868.

Conceived by Americans Christopher Latham Sholes, Carlos Glidden and Samuel W Soule, the patent was purchased by Densmore and Yost, who work with E Remington & Sons to commercialise the machine. The Remington typewriter was first produced in 1873 and, due to the machine’s success, its QWERTY keyboard was gradually adopted by other manufacturers.

Typewriters – Science Museum

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

Ernest Hemingway


Ballpoint pens

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Hungarian Lazlo Biro MASTER .jpg

Frustrated with ink splatters, Hungarian journalist and inventor, Laszlo BIro came up with the idea when he first saw ink which dried instantly.

The ballpoint pen was first invented in 1888 by American John J Loud, but his invention was never commercialised and the patent lapsed.

This missed opportunity allowed Hungarians László and György Bíró to file their own design in 1938. The Jewish brothers set up shop in Argentina and their pens soon caught the eye of Marcel Bich, who bought the patent in 1950. Bich’s sales slowed until a campaign heralding the pen that "writes the first time, every time!", and a simple rebrand, helped Bic become a global brand.

Did Biros revolutionise writing?

Fountain pens can explode or leak at high altitudes, so to have a reliable pen in the cockpit to note down important markers helped win the war.

Libby Sellers, Design Museum curator, on the RAF bulk order for Biros during WW2


Word processors

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IBM MT72 magnetic tape typewriter, 1967. Word processors were to revolutionise the office.

The term 'word processing' was coined by IBM in 1964 to market the MT/ST (magnetic tape/selectric typewriter).

More than just a typewriter, the machine used magnetic tape that enabled editing without having to retype the whole text. Information stored on the tape could be amended, automatically retyped and reprinted as many times as was needed. The tape could then be erased and reused, a development that laid the foundations for word processing as we know it today.

How the computer changed the office foreverThe pioneering physicist behind the computer revolution.

I predict a revolution over the next 20 years, involving a television display terminal sitting on our desks.

Physicist George E Pake on the office of the future


Mobile tech

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Apple's iPhone: A computer in your pocket.

When Apple released the iPhone on 29 June 2007, they set in motion a whole series of changes to the way we communicate.

With many people now carrying a computer in their pocket, writing has become more instantaneous. Short, sharp interactions that mirror speech more than they do 'writing' are now widespread. And, with more people than ever communication via images and emojis, is how we define 'writing' changing?

Steve Jobs announces iPhone

The wallet PC will be a pocket-sized device with internet and smart-card capabilities. Users could use it for payments, as a phone, or surf online.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates in his visionary book The Road Ahead (1995)


Finland phase out teaching cursive handwriting

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is the keyboard now mightier than the pen toddlers-hand-on-keyboard-160674988

Children in Finland no longer learn cursive handwriting at school.

In 2015 the Finnish government announced a new policy phasing out teaching cursive handwriting in favour of keyboard skills.

With texting and typing taking over as the primary means of communication, Finnish officials state that handwriting is no longer as valuable to kids. Minna Harmanen, who sits on Finland's National Board of Education says: "I believe children don’t have enough time to become speedy at it." Finland is one of the first countries to make the move, but how much longer before other nations follow?

App converts speech into emoji

The simple pleasure of picking up a pen and writing is a skill that has existed for thousands of years – but that skill is slowly dying.

Philip Hensher, author, The Missing Ink