The Story of the Invention of Steel Pens / With a Description of the Manufacturing Process by Which They Are Produced

Produced by an anonymous Project volunteer.







In these days of Public Schools and extended facilities for popular education it would be difficult to find many people unaccustomed to the use of steel pens, but although the manufacture of this article by presses and tools must have been introduced during the first quarter of the present century, the inquirer after knowledge would scarcely find a dozen persons who could give any definite information as to when, where, and by whom this invention was made. Less than two decades ago there were three men living who could have answered this question, but two of them passed away without making any sign, and the third—Sir Josiah Mason—has left on record that his friend and patron—Mr. Samuel Harrison—about the year 1780, made a steel pen for Dr. Priestley.

This interesting fact does not contribute anything toward solving the question, Who was the first manufacturer of steel pens by mechanical appliances? In the absence of any definite information, the balance of testimony tends to prove that steel pens were first made by tools, worked by a screw press, about the beginning of the third decade of the present century, and the names associated with their manufacture were John Mitchell, Joseph Gillott, and Josiah Mason, each, in his own way, doing something toward perfecting the manufacture by mechanical means.

The earliest references to pens are probably those in the Bible, and are to be found in Judges v. 14, 1st Kings xxi. 8, Job xix. 24, Psalm xlv. 1., Isaiah viii. 1, Jeremiah viii. 8 and xvii. 1. But these chiefly refer to the iron stylus, though the first in Jeremiah—taken in reference to the mention of a penknife, xxxvi. 23—would seem to imply that a reed was in use at that period

There is a reference to “pen and ink” in the 3d Epistle of John xiii. 5, which was written about A.D. 85, and as pens made in brass and silver were used in the Greek and Roman Empires at that time, it is probable that a metallic pen or reed was alluded to.

Pens and reeds made in the precious metals and bronze appear to have been in use at the commencement of the present era. The following are a few notable instances:

“The Queen of Hungary, in the year 1540, had a silver pen bestowed upon her, which had this inscription upon it: ‘Publii Ovidii Calamus,’ found under the ruins of some monument in that country, as Mr. Sands, in the Life of Ovid (prefixed to his Metamorphosis) relates. —“Humane Industry; or, a History of Mechanical Arts”, by Thos. Powell, D.D.: London, 1661, page 61.

This was probably a silver reed, and, from the locality in which it was found, was once the property of the poet Ovid. Publius Ovidius Naso was born in the year 43 B.C., and died 18 A.D. He was exiled at the age of 30 to Tomi, a town south of the delta of the Danube. This at present is in modern Bulgaria, but at the period mentioned was in the ancient kingdom of Hungary.

From “Notes and Queries,” in Birmingham Weekly Post, we take the following:

“EARLY METALLIC PENS.—-Metallic pens are generally supposed to have been unknown before the early part of the last century, when gold and silver pens are occasionally referred to as novel luxuries. I have, however, recently found a description and an engraving of one found in excavating Pompeii, and which is now preserved in the Museum at Naples. It is described in the quarto volume ‘Les Monuments du Musée National de Naples, gravés sur cuivre par les meillures artistes Italienes. Texte par Domenico Monaco, Conservateur du même Musée, Naples, 1882,’ and is in the Catalogue:

“’ Plate I26 (v) Plume en bronze, taillée parfaitement a la facon de nos plumes 0.13 cent.
“’ Plate I26 (y) Plume en roseau [reed] trouvée près d’un papyrus à Herculaneum.’
“The former (v) is engraved to look like an ordinary reed pen, as now used universally in the East; and the other (y) has a spear shape, or almond shape (like many modern metallic pens), but with a sort of fillet or ring on the stem, which indicates that the ‘y’ example is not a reed, but a metallic stylus, or pen, while the ‘v’ example is shown clearly as a ‘reed.’ The two are, however, certainly older than A.D. 79, when Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried by the eruption of Vesuvius.”

According to Father Montfaucon, the patriarchs of Constantinople, under the Greek Empire, were accustomed to sign their allocutions with tubular pens of silver, similar in shape to the reed pens which are still used by Oriental nations.

The following are translated from the French “Notes and Queries “— L’Intermémediare:

“A METALLIC PEN IN THE FOURTEENTH CENTURY.—M. Reni de Bellwal, in a very learned volume which he has published recently, on the first campaign of Edward III. in France, says (p. 95) with respect to the fictitious pieces (documents) fabricated by Robert d’Artois, that a clerk of Jeanne wrote the deeds, and made use of a bronze pen to enable him the better to disguise his writing. This plainly refers to a pen, and not to a stylus. Is there any record of the use of metallic pens at any period anterior to the fourteenth century? It is very satisfactory, however, to establish (as the French used to say) ‘les preuves de 1300.’”—L’Intermémediare.

In the Vieux-Neuf of M. Ed. Fournier (vol. ii., p. 22, note) there is mentioned—according to the documents used in the prosecution of Robert d’Artois, which are in the Archives—’the bronze pen’ with which the forgers in the pay of the count wrote the false papers which he required. M. Fournier also quotes from ‘Montfaucon’ ‘the silver reeds’ with which the Constantinople patriarchs used to write their letters.”—CUTHBERT, L’Intermémediare, 1st June, 1864.

“METALLIC PENS (XV., 68).-Writing was done in the Middle Ages sometimes with a metal stylus, or perhaps with a metal pen; with the former on wax, and with the pen on parchment or vellum. ‘At Trinity College, Cambridge, is a manuscript illustration of Eadwine, a monk of Canterbury, and at the end the writer is represented with a metal pen in his hand.’ (See Bibliomania in the Middle Ages, p. 103). I have in my possession a metal pen of Dutch manufacture, dating certainly from the year 1717, mounted on the same pencilholder, with a piece of solid plumbago, in a memorandum book of the same year.”—SAM: TIMMINS.

“Mr. Le Chauviné Gal, Prior of the collegiate of St. Peter and St. Bars at Aosta, had in his collection of Roman antiquities a bronze pen, slit, found in a tomb, among a number of lamps and lachrymatory vases. M. Aubert has given a drawing and description of it in a work on Aosta. It was subsequently stolen from him by a collector.”—CHAMBERY, Un Savoyard, L’Intermémediare, 25th May, 1868.

“METALLIC PENS,—In a precious volume (an account of the books of the Decretalia) preserved in the library of Saint Antoine, of Padua, the following notice is to be found at the bottom of the last page: ‘This work is fashioned and by diligence finished for the service of God, not with ink of quill nor with brazen reed, but with a certain invention of printing or reproducing by John Fust, citizen of Mayence, and Peter Schoeiffer, of Gernsheim, Dec. 17th, 1465, A.D.’ Here, then, we have a document proving the existence of metallic pens in the Middle Ages. But has any such pen come down to us? If so, could a detailed description of it be obtained? On the other hand, I am curious to know if it is possible that platinum was used in the eighteenth century in the manufacture of pens, or whether it is necessary to attribute a peculiar meaning to the ‘platinum pen’ in the following passage of the system of shorthand by Bertin (edit. of the year iv., p. 93) (1793). ‘Those of steel and platinum are most convenient; these latter have the advantage of all others, in that they hold the ink a long time, and run over the paper easily, and are not liable to corrosion by any simple acid.’ I am ignorant of what the same author means when he mentions the endless pen, which would certainly be the best. “’—J. CAMUS, L’Intermémediare.

“Metallic pens were used before the fifteenth century; they were in use at the court of Augustus.” See L’Intermémed. (I. 69, 94, 141; II. 319.) Consult also Le Vieux-Neuf Ed. Fournier.—A.D.

The following extracts show there have been several claimants, on the Continent, who profess to have invented metallic pens, made from steel, in the early part of the eighteenth century; but the reader had better suspend his judgment until he has read the notes that follow them:

“A manuscript, entitled ‘Historical Chronicle of Aix-la-Chapelle, second book, 1748,’ places on record the claims of Johann Janssen, a magistrate of that place, as the inventor of steel pens. ‘Just at the meeting of the congress [after the Austrian war] I may without boasting, claim the honour of having invented a new pen. It is, perhaps, not an accident that God should have inspired me at the present time with the idea of making steel pens, for all the envoys here assembled have bought the first that have been made; therewith, as may be hoped, to sign a treaty of peace, which, with God’s blessing, shall be as permanent as the hard steel with which it is written. Of these pens, as I have invented them, no man hath before seen or heard. If kept clean and free from rust and ink, they will continue fit for use for many years. Indeed, a man may write twenty reams of paper with one, and the last line would be written as well as the first. They are now sent into every corner of the world as a rare thing—to Spain, France, England and Holland. Others will no doubt make imitations of my pens, but I am the man who first invented and made them. I have sold a great number of them at home and abroad at 1s. each, and I dispose of them as quickly as I can make them.”’

In an article on Writing Instruments, which appeared in the Berlin Paper Zeitung, on the 19th of May, 1887, the author says:

“A school teacher of Koningberg, named Burger, in the year 1808, made pens from metal, but he got poor by his trials. After this time, and probably imitating the pens of Burger, the English began to take in hand the manufacture of pens; especially Perry, he having perfected the pens, as he did not restrict himself to the simple straight slit, but he made cuts in the sides of different kinds.”

In a pamphlet upon the manufacture of steel pens, published in Paris, in 1884, the writer says:

“The invention of the metallic pen is due to a French mechanic— Arnoux—who lived in the eighteenth century, who made as far back as 1750 a number of metallic pens as a curiosity. This invention did not have any immediate result in France but spread to England, and became in Birmingham, about 1830, a very prosperous industry. A very curious fact about this trade is that, in England, it does not exist out of Birmingham, where there are about ten manufactories. In France it has become localized in Boulogne.”

There is also the “nameless Sheffield Artisan,” who so frequently figures in newspaper paragraphs as the inventor of steel pens; and William Gadsby, a mathematical instrument maker, who for his own use constructed a clumsy article from the mainspring of a watch; but it is not till the beginning of the eighteenth century that we get anything authentic respecting the making of metallic pens. “Este,” writing in “Local Notes and Queries” (Birmingham Weekly Post) mentions a remarkable little volume supplied to the members of the States General of Holland, in the possession of Mr. W. Bragge, of Sheffield, dated 1717. It contained a silver pencil case, in two parts, one holding a piece of plumbago, mounted like a crayon, and the other a metallic pen. We have seen this unique book (now the property of Mr. Sam: Timmins). The pen is of the barrel shape, apparently silver, and it must be regarded as the earliest authentic metallic pen. Of the date there can be no doubt, as the pen is made to pass through loops in the cover of the volume to keep it closed, after the manner of pocket books, and the book bears the date, printed on the title page, 1717.

Pope, about the same time, received from Lady Frances Shirley a present of a standish, containing a STEEL and a gold pen. In acknowledging the receipt of this present, the poet wrote an ode, in which the following lines occur:

? ? ? “Take at this hand celestial arms;
? ? ? ? Secure the radiant weapons wield;
? ? ? This golden lance shall guard desert,
? ? ? ? And, if a vice dares keep the field,
? ? ? This steel shall stab it to the heart.
? ? ? ? Awed, on my bended knees I fell,
? ? ? Received the weapons of the sky,
? ? ? ? And dipped them in the sable well—
? ? ? The fount of fame or infamy.
? ? ? ? What well? What weapon? Flavia cries,
? ? ? A standish, steel and golden pen!
? ? ? ? It came from Bertrand’s,* not the skies,
? ? ? I gave it you to write again.”

*Bertrand kept a fancy shop in Bath. He died in 1755. His wife is mentioned by Horace Walpole, in his letter to George Montague, May 18th, 1749, which letter is printed in his Correspondence.

In No. 503 of the Spectator, bearing the date of October 7, 1712, Steele, mentioning the conspicuous manner in which a certain lady conducted herself in church, says:

“For she fixed her eyes upon the preacher, and as he said anything she approved, with one of Charles Mather’s fine tablets, she set down the sentence, at once showing her fine hand, the gold pen, her readiness in writing, and her judgments in choosing what to write.”

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