pen, pointed implement used in writing or drawing to apply ink or a similar colored fluid to any surface, such as paper. Various kinds of pens have been used since ancient times. Reeds that were slit or frayed at the end were used in antiquity; similar pens, usually made of bamboo, are commonly employed in Asia today. In ancient Greece and Rome much writing was done by scratching the wax coating of a tablet with a stylus, or style—a pointed implement whose blunt end was used to make erasures by smoothing the wax. Quills were introduced early in the Middle Ages and continued to be the main writing device until the mid-19th cent. Plucked from live birds (usually geese), the quills were treated with heat and shaped with a penknife, and they required frequent sharpening. Although metal pens were known to the Romans, and a few had been made in Europe in the 18th cent., a cheap, efficient slip-in nib did not come into common use until Josiah Mason improved existing models and began large-scale production in 1828 at Birmingham, England. The fountain pen, which feeds ink to the pen point from a reservoir, was first successfully produced on a commercial scale in the 1880s. The ball-point pen, introduced c.1944, offered several advantages over the fountain pen. Tipped with a ball bearing that rolls a gelatinous instant-drying ink onto paper, the ball-point pen contains a longer-lasting supply of ink than the fountain pen and is less likely to leak. Although soft-tip pens had been used in ancient times (the Egyptians made soft-tip pens from rushes c.4000 B.C., and the Chinese later used hair-tip pens), it was not until the 1950s that felt-tip markers came into fairly common use in the United States. By the 1960s felt-tip markers had been largely replaced by fiber-tip markers. These are made of such materials as nylon and plastic, are available in a wide variety of colors, and are capable of marking any surface, including plastic and glass.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.