The Power of the Pen


After seeing Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neal on TV this morning, (oh, my goodness, where has the time gone), I decided to share my article from a few years ago on the power of the pen.  Ryan O’Neal said that emails and text messages of today can’t reproduce the emotion–the touch, the smell, the sight–of handwritten letters of yesterday.  See if you agree.

The Power of the Pen

“The pen is mightier than the sword.” Even though English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton made this assertion in 1839, his sentiments about the power of the pen still hold true today. Where would the world be without this writing implement? Yes, many people today use their thumbs to write their messages, and even crooner Pat Boone alluded to using a stick to write love letters in the sand. However, the invention of the ink pen has made a powerful impact on society.

Writing implements can obviously be traced all the way back to the beginning of time. Humans have used various sharp instruments to scratch, carve, or engrave their messages onto clay or stone or metal or other such substances. Ancient Indians first used the quill pen (made of bird feathers) as early as 500 B. C. By the end of the seventh century, however, a Spanish theologian by the name of St. Isidore of Seville had introduced the use of a quill pen in publishing one of the first encyclopedias.

As a skilled scribe, St. Isidore recorded information for posterity and, no doubt, spent countless hours with pen in hand. From the late sixth century until his death in 636, Isidore wrote volume after volume of information and promoted the acquisition of knowledge. As a prolific writer, he penned Etymologies, a type of dictionary much like a database of today. Because of his writing skills, Isidore was canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church in the late sixteenth century; and he has most recently earned the title of “Patron Saint of the Internet.” Isidore could not have acquired this venerable status without the power of the pen. Furthermore, the technology of today’s writing instruments, namely the computer keyboard, could not have achieved its current status without the pen that frontiered it.

Isidore, likely unaware of his precedent-setting example, inspired writers for the next thousand years. Pictures have commonly depicted bards such as Dante and Shakespeare with a feathered quill pen in their hands. Aided by the unwilling sacrifice of a feathered fowl, early novelists like Defoe and Richardson probably scribbled and scratched countless words of their own manuscripts.

Isidore’s quill evolved during those years to meet the needs of its writers. Made from a variety of bird feathers, quill pens had numerous uses. Jane Austen, for example, would have penned a special poem with the fine feathers of a crow. Thomas Jefferson, a prolific letter writer, bred his own geese for the purpose of supplying his need for quills. Ink from Asian and European trees and berries allowed these feathers to serve both bird and man.

By the nineteenth century the manufacturing of metal pens had replaced the slow and tedious use of the quill. At one point industries manufactured more steel for making pens than for making swords. (If people would do more writing than fighting these days, the world would be a much better place!)

By the mid twentieth century the fountain pen had become the tool of the writing trade. Ball point pens also enabled their users to write on more various surfaces. From the popular Cross pen set used as the quintessential graduation gift of the mid twentieth century to the funky gel pens, lighted pens, glitter pens, seasonal pens, and novelty toy pens of today, the ink pen has served students, teachers, business professionals, Presidents, and authors.

An author today may have replaced his old pen and legal pad with the keyboard of his iPad; however, his reading public will flock to attend his appearances at local bookstores just for the privilege of owning a book penned with his signature. (The owners of a personally autographed book know the value of these treasures over a Kindle or a Nook.) Political supporters savor their souvenir pens once held in the hands of their favorite candidates. The seventy-five pens used by Lyndon Baines Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the twenty-two pens used by Barack Obama to sign his recent health care bill are worth their weight in gold. Business professionals such as bankers and lawyers daily ask for hundreds of signatures, preferably in black ink. English teachers rely heavily on red ink for nine months out of every school year, and their students learn the art of writing their timed essays in medium point black ink.

Obviously, the writing instrument has made a long and arduous journey over the years, and it has served as an invaluable tool. Without this instrument, yes, the written word would survive through modern technology; however, its evolution would continue through some type of stylus based on the characteristics of its ancestor. With the fountain pen arthritis sufferers can find greater ease and comfort in writing, and calligraphers can collect an assortment of nibs to fulfill their hobby needs. Handwriting is an essential art in need of a tool. Even in this age of texting and email abbreviations, eventually the inbox becomes saturated and messages must be deleted. The box in the attic filled with old high school love letters and messages from Nam can be kept for all time.

Lord Byron summed up the value of this invention when he penned the following poem, probably written with a quill pen and found in someone’s attic:

“O nature’s noblest gift—my grey goose-quill!

Slave of my thoughts, obedient to my will,

Torn from thy parent bird to form a pen,

That mighty instrument of little men.”

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