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No axe can cut out what a letter has written about

A typewriter, computer, mobile messenger… Humankind is getting farther and farther away from”hand-made speech“, from thoughts and words written on parchment, birch bark, paper or cuffs. We type articles, novels, poems and love letters with a computer keyboard. However, it wouldn′ t have been possible if it hadn′ t been for the little servants of human memory: calligraphic pen and ink.

On a kalam′ s nib

Writing materials were invented in the Ancient East and then adopted by the Greeks. The first historical evidence on the use of the quill of a feather for writing date back to the 7th century AD. The predecessors of calligraphic pens were kalams, reed or rushy sticks with gore or ends like a broom. The Book of A Thousand and One Nights, chronicles of Ecclesiastes and Apocalypse by John the Theologian were written with a kalam. Apart from a kalam an ancient chirographer always had an ink-pot for inks of two colours and a sack with sand to blot the fresh text. This ancient prototype of a modern set of writing materials did not change considerably till the middle of the 20th century.

Ancient civilizations had plenty of materials to render the words of foolishness and wisdom: stone, clay and wax plates, papyrus. Parchment was used in extraordinary cases like creation of legal documents or religious books. After processing fine calf skin it became silky, smooth and a bit transparent. Glimmering sheets of the future parchment book were then covered with legible letters, even with judicial texts and bright colour miniature pictures and illustrations. Folios rewritten on parchment by hand were extremely expensive. They were decorated with precious covers and kept safe and mentioned as the most valuable legacy. Paper was developed in Europe in approximately the 14th century; initially was very expensive as well. It is known that for the lack of paper or parchment Service Books in some Russian monasteries were written on birch bark.

Five rods for a beard

It was difficult to prepare a good pen and ink for writing. First, one should have taken the quill of a feather, say, from a goose or, better, a swan. Then one made a diagonal cut on a quill called nib. For book writing the gore had to be longer than that for fast writing, short notes. There shouldn′ t be any hair or dirt on a pen. Meanwhile, Arakcheev, the famous Russian politician of the 18-19th centuries, imposed a penalty of five rods for a "bearded" pen. Eventually, the quill should have been split from nib to the middle of the cut to make ink flow more efficiently. If cutting a quill was unsuccessful, the work had to start from the very beginning. For better writing efficiency the pen′ s nib was waxed.

In historical movies and paintings we got used to seeing gorgeous pens with rich plumes, often swan or peacock. It is not quite true from the historic viewpoint. However, there is some historical evidence that writing materials looked a bit different. Here is an instruction from a 17th century manual: the rachis should be cleared of feathers, after the nib is cut, the ink is "put on". Further on: "if anyone wants to write, take a pen into the right hand and write down the whole page. As the last word is written down and the ink is gone, there is nothing left" (of the pen). Actually, it is a prototype of an ink-pen!

In the times of Peter the Great paperwork ranked among the most important state duties, thus skillful record management became highly important. Sometimes, in order to get an appointment in St Petersburg, a provincial clerk had to take with him an assistant whose only asset was his ability to nib the pen well. Military clerks were true calligraphic virtuosos. If civil clerks can be called masters of paperwork, then military clerks were aristocrats of calligraphy, for a mistake or misunderstanding on a military document could have had severe effects.

Ink keys

Making inks was an artful matter as well. In ancient times the ink used for writing was made of soot, red chalk or glue. Old masters were aware of some important secrets; the inks on some manuscripts written hundreds of years ago didn′ t begin to fade until now.

The Byzantine is famous for its "purple books". Their pages are red and the texts are written in silver and gold. In Ancient China most precious books were written with the ink made of "12 jewels": powdered pearls, ivory, scales of rare fish, powdered gold, silver, copper plus some other ingredients.

In Ancient Russia the ink was prepared from very original ingredients. According to a 17th century manual, on the final stage the clerks were to add "rusty iron, locks, keys, chains…and copper as to deposit the iron" in the brew. Sometimes they used oak buttons, alder or oak bark and soot. The inks were of different colours: from light-ginger to black.

Ready ink was either kept in tiny jugs with narrow necks or dried and kept in bricks. The ink-pots used for writing had several bowls — for ink, cinnabar (red) and pens. As paperwork became more popular in Russia, the clerks started to carry bronze ink-pots on their belts. The ink-pots belonging to royal clerks had on it the images of a horseman with a spade, double eagle and a lion and unicorn attacking each other. ’Secular‘ inkpots were decorated with bright enamel images of flowers and herbs. Later ink-pots reminded one of minor architectural forms which decorated the desks of aristocrats, merchants and officials.

From ’feather‘ pen to ’fountain-pen’

It was a calligrapher from Nuremberg, who started using a fountainpen in 1544. However, iron writing materials gained universal currency in the middle of the 18th century, after the invention of stainless steel. A massive switch to steel pens in Russia happened in the times of Alexander II though their industrial production started 50 years earlier. There is an interesting historic fact: in 1829 a ship from Kronstadt brought steel pens to Boston. There were such times when America bought writing materials from Russia!

A new epoch in the history of the pen started in the second half of the 19th century.

1883, Lewis Waterman, a 45-year-old broker from New-York was preparing to sign a very important contract. Before going to the stock exchange, Waterman had bought a new fountain pen. Thus, the contract was lying on the table and the client was ready to put his signature on it. What went wrong?! The pen refused to write. Initially it was impossible to get a drop of ink from it. However, when the client pressed the pen, a drop made a huge blot on the document. Waterman rushed to his office to get a copy of the contract. On returning after an hour, he found out that the client had signed a contract with his competitor.

This painful incident stimulated Waterman to invent a fail-safe writing instrument which would be very popular with businessmen. He was searching for a method of uniform ink passing through a pen when he was struck by the idea of using the capillary principle. Additional hollows in the system of ink supply enabled consistent, continuous ink supply in a pen. The very first Waterman fountainpen was rather long and was filled with a pipette.

Much ink has flown since then, and for 125 years the fountain-pen models have been updated several times. Nowadays fountainpens have become an expensive image accessory. Modern premium-class models are equipped with golden or platinum nibs, covered with ruthenium or iridium (elements of the platinum group). Designers′ cases are made of gold or valuable enamel and encrusted with diamonds. The trend setters are: Parker, Waterman, Montblanс, Cross, Montegrappa and Sheaffer.

Calligraphic pens made of quills have long fallen into oblivion, but fountain pens are still "holding the fort". However, progress can′ t be stopped. But sometimes rapid progress leaves behind something important and delicate, something concerning the human soul. No matter how much comfort the progress of the civilization gave us, we can′ t imagine the geniuses of Pushkin or Shakespeare without ancient folios and the scratch of a pen.

Boris Nezhdanov
Magazine "Perfect flight", February 2008

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