The Influence of the Pen Point on Writing

A paper read to the Society at the AGM held in London on 24 April, 1957

By H. R. Hughes
Date Added: 17/07/2009


Mr Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,

On the inside cover of the first number of the BULLETIN you will find the fundamental statement that 'the characteristic graduations of thick and thin strokes in italic results from the use of an edged pen and not from any variation of pressure'.

I think we are all agreed that writing - or print for that matter - in which each stroke is of the same thickness is tiresome to read; it needs shading. Shading can be produced in two ways: by spreading the points of the nib or, with a suitable pen, by varying the direction of the stroke. A pointed pen, whether it be pin-pointed, fine-pointed or round-pointed, can only produce shading by pressure writing; the converse is not true; an edged pen, can either give directional writing or a combination of pressure writing and directional writing; for lack of a generic term for the combination we will call it 'compound writing'.

Of course one would not quibb.1e by denying the classification of 'directional' to a FREE hand if the pressure is not deliberate and the nib-spread is imperceptible. Directionality is a joint attribute: of the pen and the writer; a certain amount of 'give' in a pen is desirable-to write as it were with a stick is unpleasant; if that 'give' causes the points to spread only those with exceptionally light hands can maintain directionality; if it does not then the common man can do so.

Italic then - Italic old and new - is a species of directional writing and I would ask you to consider with mc over the centuries how pens have conditioned directionality.

The reed is peculiarly adapted for edged-pen writing: unless it has a fairly extensive surface, it wears away too quickly and the most sensible alternative is of course the edge. It is not so well adapted for pressure; it is stiff. But the fibres have what is called a low elastic limit and if overstrained some of them crack and the nibs take a permanent set.

The parallel case of Mohammedan writing is worthy of examination. With this there was a direct transition from the reed to the steel or metal pen not via the quill. In my own time the reed has still been in use. I have seen Mohammedan hands from Fez to Singapore and from Zanzibar to Peshawar and always with one exception they have been edged-pen hands. That exception relates to a hand written a little in the Punjab and Afghanistan with the rather thick through alternative I mentioned. Western Europe - 'Western' is the operative word: I do not of course include Byzantine Europe-entered the Dark Ages with a reed. It emerged with the quill. That is, I submit, a significant fact. Throughout the Dark Ages in Western Europe there was little private writing. It was a monastic pursuit, with commercial writing a bad second. For it was a huckstering kind of commerce, that had declined very much from the organisation of classical times. The quill bends differently from the reed.

It is whippy but nature has seen to it that a bird's feathers do not either crack or, unless rendered sodden, get permanently distorted in flight; that is to say it has a high elastic limit. You can thus get a wide point-spread if you want to. On the other hand, if you are cunning you can even pare away a wedge-shaped end to the tip. With a shortish slit and a light hand the monks had just as good a pen for edged-pen writing as before. Many of you in the audience can cut such a quill.

Not so the commercial folk who were amateurs at writing and besides preferred a longer slit so that they didn't have to dip so often. A still greater stumbling block is that the reed is a thick-walled cylinder; the quill a thin-walled one.

The angles you leave from first-fashioning the quill are sharper as you will see if you cut across the cylinder and unless you are practised it is easier to trim them off to a point than to leave an edge. These inconvenient angles if untrimmed stick in the paper and stick worse with directional writing than with pressure writing because of the sideways movement. We shall have occasion to return to this.

So the commercial world tended to enter the Middle Ages with a pointed quill. In

England there was a continuous social upward movement. Dick Whitting tons rose in the world and as they rose they brought their writing with them.

In Northern and Central Italy social boundaries were - and indeed still are - more rigid. There the movement was substantially downwards and there was a very peculiar form of venture-contract whereby moneyed people became merely sleeping partners in particular short-term commercial ventures - a man might have fifty such ventures running at a time and yet not soil his hand - or his handwriting – in commerce. Not only did the upper classes continue with their own kinds of writing; the kinds originally derived from the monks but the drawing-up and settling of these contracts employed thousands of notaries and lawyers and they (and the lay-copyists when they succeeded the monks) were practised writers and quill-cutters, and used the educated edged-pen hand of the particular period.

These practised writers evolved Cancellaresca in the fifteenth century; it was very suitable for them because edged-pen directional writing is quick and effortless. You do not tire your hand as you do by pressing.

In the sixteenth century reading passed into the domain of the common man; I suspect that this was not because of the revival of the classics but because he could now get spicy stories in cheaply printed books. Writing is a natural corollary to reading and it so happened that in the period 1520-1570 he had an incentive to write well. Clerical jobs were much sought after; they were not only a means of getting on in the world, but a protection in these hungry and troublous Italian years. The Writing Masters cashed in on this as you can see by the number of editions and reprints published.

Obviously this general public, apart from being unpractised writers, were up against the same difficulties in quill cutting to which I have already drawn attention and they soon had an added one in that it became fashionable to write with a narrower edge -Palatino strove unsuccessfully to counteract this tendency-and the narrower the edge the more difficult it is to preserve an edge at all when you come to round off those inconvenient angles. When Palatino's influence declined, matters got worse and Ercolani in 1574 shows pens with narrow effective edges and also an incredibly short slit; the latter doubtless in a desperate attempt-for the public that is - to minimise nib-spread and preserve directionality.

When reasonably secure conditions returned to Italy and clerical jobs were less sought after, public interest in writing gradually waned and in the end nondescript forms of pressure-writing must have become general. Later, the Italians borrowed an exaggerated version of our own copperplate written with pens that were not only pin-pointed but ultra-flexible. Perhaps some of you would like to examine a typical pen -try it on the finger nail; it gives an idea of how far the Italians fell from grace.

We can pass over the pens made from steel and various metals, mostly made from tube and by filing, which intrigued Dr. Priestley; they were curiosities used by few people and could not have affected general writing tendencies. We come to the steel pen proper made from flat steel rounded up. Here as it was made- from the flat there were no inconvenient angles to contend with, but there was a roughness from the blanking operation and also there is the scale from hardening .which has to be removed. What was originally employed to smooth away the roughness and remove the scale was a wet scour process, since superseded, rumbling with water and what was known as "pot", pot being faulty china, crushed, from the Potteries. It was very fierce in its action and difficult to control; you could take too much off the edges and leave yourself with a couple of pins which dig in the paper. Such pens lacked the smooth running of a well-cut quill.

The scratchiness of the pin point favoured the use, by those not compelled to write copperplate as the then most legible writing, of edged pens, both square and oblique cut. Steel has a much greater tensile strength per unit of area - or of thickness - than a bird's feather so if the pen is of the conventional rounded shape then to get a similar action to an edged quill the steel would have to be very much thinner, so thin as to be costly to roll down, with a short life and an edge that cut like a razor blade.

In that event a different solution was adopted. For instance there was a pen with the proprietary name of the Court Hand Pen which must have had a very considerable sale around the 1850's. (I have no idea what Court Hand was, no doubt Mr Fairbank could enlighten us). The pen itself is like a small school-type pen but made in three different widths of oblique edge and it opens and shuts in the same manner as a school pen. Then there were pens made for the Engrossing Hand, not substantially different though more abrupt in action; there was J-pen writing and a whole host of particularised edged-pen hands peculiar to the individual who wrote them, some of them very attractive indeed but taking quite a lot of deciphering. All these hands used nib-spread; they were compound writing. It was, you will observe, the pen that conditioned the writing.

I believe that I designed for Miss Richardson the first steel pen specifically for directional writing. Even so it has its limitations; it is for precision rather than speed.

Steel pens are slit in the round after hardening and tempering; there is not enough resistance in metal to do this and it was not until long after steel pens had become popular and in stereotyped demand that some unknown toolmaker, unhonoured and unsung, found the solution, slitting them in the flat and coaxing the two separated parts together again in the raising-it is quite an art. This must have happened some time in the second half of last century-just when I don't know and probably nobody else does now. The snag here was of course the public; metal can be pretty and the public likes good looks.

By selecting a suitable alloy-not necessarily the best looker though you can give it looks by gilding it-and strain-hardening it to a suitable temper you do have unrivalled possibilities for directional writing, the tensile strength being less than that of steel; the point can be of a good thickness without the pen being over-stiff yet you can impart resilience to it so that the nibs when subjected to such minor pulsations of the hand as are proper to directional writing will reassume their pristine positions. In other words such a pen can have 'give' yet not 'dub-up.

In 1898 my father invented the channel-point so providing a new kind of edge which quill cutters could not have produced and an edge which can make a full-fledged upward or reverse stroke without catching in the paper; it is an interesting speculation that the history of the kerns and so of the old Italic might have been different had such an edge existed in the sixteenth century. He applied the point to a pen made of what is called gilding metal which takes a beautiful finish but is soft and 'duffy'; we changed the material and for a year or two after the first war from 1919 onwards, advertised the pen in the press stressing in our advertisements that it is easier and quicker to let a pen do the work and to write without pressing on it. I mention it as I think the first occasion in modern times that directional writing - albeit a go-as-you-please directional writing-was put before the general public.

But of course that was purely empiric; I had never studied the theories which I put before you this evening until I met Mr Fairbank and it was only through his constructive criticism from the calligraphic angle and by trial and error-so many trials and 'so many errors-that the exceptional degree of directionality which he considered necessary was achieved.

*Trade terms are referred to here. 'Steel pens' are made from ordinary carbon steel hardenable by heat treatment: 'metal pens' are made from non-ferrous metal (excluding precious metals) not hardenable by heat treatment.