From Scratchy Nibs to Computer Keyboards

What tools do you use for writing? How have these changed over time? Did a new form of writing tool mark an important milestone for you?

As we go through life, we reach turning points, important milestones. I remember one such day at junior school. We knew something was going to happen days, even weeks and months, before it did. Everyone knew that pencils were for the baby classes. Time to move on. We were going to use pen and ink.

Each desk had a hole with an inkpot that fitted inside it. On this important day, the teacher came around and, with all the solemnity of a religious ceremony, she filled each pot from a big bottle of ink the colour of dishwater. Then she came round again with a small sheet of pink blotting paper, warning us that when writing we must NEVER turn the page of our exercise books without using this to dry the ink.

And then, at last, the moment we were waiting for. She gave each of us a pen with a steel (detachable) nib. And off we went. Excitedly I dipped my pen in the inkwell and did my first grown-up inky letters. . .

What a disappointment. The nib was scratchy. If you pressed on slightly too hard it split into two prongs. After just one letter you had to dip your pen into the ink again. Before that, I’d loved writing stories in pencil, compositions they were called at school. But now there was no chance of letting your imagination soar when you had to keep trying to make legible marks on the page with this thing. Scrawly writing punctuated with smudges and ink blots filled my exercise book, whereas before I’d always done well in handwriting tests.

I’d rather have used chalk on slates, like Victorian children did. Indeed, the teacher still made a lot of use of chalk for writing on the blackboard but chalk wasn’t used by the teacher only as a writing tool. It was used for throwing at those of us who weren’t paying attention. Oh well, it wasn’t as bad as getting the board rubber with the wooden back.

Meanwhile, we struggled on (was it for a few months, a year, or longer?) with the horrible invention of scratchy-nibbed pens until…  along came the fountain pen. What a lovely name: the ‘fountain pen’. This wasn’t a new invention in the late-fifties. Apparently the oldest known fountain pen was designed by a Frenchman called Bion in 1702, but it was new and exciting to me as a child of ten.

No more constantly dipping in ink. You could fill it up by dipping it in the inkpot and lifting and then releasing a lever that fitted flush with the barrel of the pen. Oh wonder of wonders, this meant you could forget about the ink supply for a while. What’s more, instead of having to use the horrible school ink that was an insipid rainy-day grey, we could bring our own bottles of ink, a lovely deep blue. Later, we could use fountain pens that had replaceable pre-filled ink cartridges – less messy than using bottles of ink.

Occasionally there were problems, like the pen perversely releasing an ink blot onto the pristine page of my school exercise book but, compared with those scratchy dip-in pens, fountain pens seemed marvelous. From then up to leaving school in 1965, everything I wrote at school was in fountain pen. We weren’t allowed to use ball-point pens, like the one I used every night for my diary writing.

I left school in 1965 at the age of fifteen. Later, I returned to the classroom to do the GCE ‘O’ levels which I should have done ten years earlier. I was amazed to find that now we could use a ball-point pen for our essays and even for the actual exams. It’s so much easier to write faster with a ball-point pen. With ‘O’ level exams you needed to write quickly to show how much information you could regurgitate.

Let’s move on now to another writing tool, the typewriter. Do you remember typewriters where the roller mechanism (carriage) holding the paper moved on one space to the left each time you pressed a key? When you got to a few spaces before the right margin of the paper, a bell sounded. Using the carriage return lever turned the paper up and moved the carriage back to the start of the next line – with a clunk click every trip. You had to take care not to put your cup of tea right at the side of the typewriter or else it might get pushed over by the carriage knocking into it (as I found out).

Do you remember those ribbons on spools that inked your fingers during the painstaking task of changing them?  When I was sixteen, my hands were often inky in my job as an office junior. I prided myself on being able to type fast but that made the keys keep jamming up against the ribbon. The only way to separate the jammed keys was with your fingers: another messy job.

And what a task it was to correct mistakes, especially if using several carbon copies. You could use tippex fluid, but it was difficult trying to re-align the carbon copies and not get tippex on the carbon paper. It was best to keep practising until you rarely made mistakes. One day at work I typed over and over again the sentence ‘The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain’ to see if I could fill the whole page without making one single mistake. I think I did admirably well, but my boss was not impressed. The mistake I did make was to leave my sheet of paper in view when I went for lunch. On my return he called me into his office and asked, ‘Jean, where does the rain in Spain fall?’ Of course he was really asking me why it was that I had, apparently, not got enough work to do.

About twenty years later along came something much better than the typewriter. Computerised writing tools became easily accessible for home use. In 1985 I got an Amstrad PCW, along with a dot matrix printer which printed closely spaced dots to form letters.The Amstrad came with word processing software called Locoscript. I could correct mistakes before they were printed on the page. This was wonderful. No more did I need to laboriously type out pages informing us where the rain in Spain falls.

Continuous tractor-feed paper was fitted onto the wheels of the printer by sprocket holes down each side of the paper. After removing the printed paper, you had to tear off the perforated sprocket strips at each side. You also had to tear along horizontal perforations to separate the concertina-folded paper into separate A4 sheets.

I happily used the Amstrad for all my essays and my dissertation when I was doing my degree. A friend on the same course as me hadn’t figured out how to set up the pages on her Amstrad to get the space between pages in the right place. Her printed lines ran through the horizontal perforations. This meant she couldn’t tear the paper into single sheets. She once handed a long essay in to the tutor in one long scroll, like those of medieval monks.

And then came the PC with that marvellous word processing package, Word, and much more besides. Of course, out went the dot matrix printer, and now we have laser printers affordable for home use. What’s more we can watch films and listen to songs on our computer. We can write blogs, upload images and show off with our very own website that even technophobic dimwits like me can set up. In moving along from scratchy nibs to computer keyboards, I think we’ve come a long way. I wonder what will be the writing tools of the future. Now that’s an interesting thought, isn’t it?

Never the less, newer technology hasn’t made all previous writing tools redundant. I do still often write first drafts with the good old ball pen. It never gets hacked or succumbs to those nasty viruses. Computers are wonderful until things go wrong. Now, where’s my pen?

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