The Mighty Pen

The Mighty Pen 

By Patrick F. Cannon

We have all heard the expression: “the pen is mightier than the sword.” This is a dubious proposition. You may recall that Errol Flynn as Robin Hood did not reach for his trusty Mont Blanc when he lost his sword in the course of his epic battle with the Sheriff of Nottingham, played by the expertly dastardly Basil Rathbone. No, he summoned up his handy dagger to fend off the flashing blade of the vile sheriff until he could regain his own sword. Then the issue was not in doubt. Who can forget the anguished look of shock on poor Basil’s face as he was run through yet again as a perennial cinema villain? No wonder he embraced the role of Sherlock Holmes when it came along.

Back to the pen. Now, it’s certainly true that words have had the power to move the currents of history; and that, until recently, those words have been generally struck upon paper by pens. Who can forget the Magna Carta and our own Declaration of Independence? But one could also argue that the hordes of Genghis Khan, Tarras Bulba, William the Conqueror, Napoleon and Adolph Hitler were little dissuaded by the pleas of their victims, no matter how elegantly expressed. And while these philosophical discussions of the relative merits of the pen versus the sword might be of some interest to political scientists, it is the pen itself that interests me.

I’m afraid my researches have not revealed the actual inventor of the pen as we now know it. As is so often the case, its development was a progression of fits and starts. As you should know if you have been reading my History of the World, the earliest writings were mere scratchings upon rocks by other rocks. Indeed, they couldn’t properly be called “writing” as such, since they were mostly little pictures that must have had some meaning to the brutes who incised them.

Eventually, as we know, these pictographs (as they came to be known) were developed into more sophisticated symbols by the Egyptians, which we now call hieroglyphics. They soon tired of chiseling away, however, and eventually discovered that their hieros could be scratched upon any handy surface by dipping one of the reeds that grew so copiously on the banks of the Nile into the dye that they were already using to adorn their faces.  It was then only a matter of time until they discovered that other plants could be ground up and turned into Papyrus.

Having made Egyptian chiselers redundant (the first instance of this continuing phenomenon), the new technology soon spread across the known world. It’s difficult to imagine poor Homer having the patience to chisel the Iliad and Odyssey on the rocks that so annoyingly dot the Greek countryside. He almost certainly would have been reduced to writing limericks, the tweets of the day.

It is to the Roman Garrolus Quilus that we owe the invention of the feather-quill pen. Poor Quilus was laboring away transcribing Caesar’s Commentaries when an Eagle flew over and shed one of its feathers directly upon his manuscript. In one of those “Ah Ha” moments that changed the course of history, Quilas noticed that the feather’s end looked a good bit like the plant reed he was using. He dipped it into his ink and noticed immediately that the good bird’s feather was sturdier than the reed and imposed a finer line.

Perhaps the Dark Ages had something to do with it, but no great advances were made in pen technology for some hundreds of years. For a long period, only the Irish monks used them as they labored to copy the entirety of Western Civilization, meanwhile raising chickens for both Sunday dinner and pen quills. These amazing hooded men labored for only the greater glory of God and all the stout they could drink.

The invention of movable type by Herr Gutenberg may also have had a hand in slowing pen development. Significant advances awaited the Industrial Revolution, which came too late to save poor Edward Gibbon. The composition of his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is reputed to have caused the death of some 5,000 Passenger pigeons, whose pen feathers were highly valued.  Is it any wonder that these noble birds soon became extinct?

With the Industrial Revolution and advances in metallurgy came the metal nib and soon after, the fountain pen (based on the suction theories of Sir Isaac Newton). In the mid 20th Century came the ball point pen, which didn’t need refilling and could even write under water and in outer space. Of course, fountain pens are still made and are highly valued by collectors and the better class of business executive, who like to have one or two expensive examples scattered about their desks to add some tone, even though they may not even have ink in them.

I see that cursive writing is once again going to be taught in our schools. In my day, one learned the Palmer Method with a fountain pen under the watchful eye of a stern Dominican. This happy trend should keep pens of all types in use, if only for “to do” and shopping lists, and perhaps the occasional billet doux. Or is love perhaps as old fashioned as the quill pen?

Copyright 2018, Patrick F. Cannon


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