Monday, 22 August 2011

Steel Pen is the Root of All Evil

There is no such thing as pre-technological writing, writes Sonja Neef in her wonderful new book Imprint and Trace: Handwriting in the Age of Technology. “Writing has always been technology – handwork and action (Handlung), skill and know-how.” The new has always been resisted as a mortal enemy to things old and tested. The advent of steel pens with Peregrine Williamson of Baltimore U.S.A and Mason in Birmingham in early nineteenth century was a death knoll for quills. Victor Hugo sworn never to use these “needles” and Jules Janin who was the leading spokesman against steel pens was adamant:

“The steel pen is the true root of all evil from which society as a whole is suffering in our time. One needs to compare the steel pen that one uses nowadays with the good old quill that well served our venerable ancestors. The steel pen, this modern invention, makes an unpleasant impression upon us. It is as though one fell in love against one’s will with a little, hardly visible dagger dipped in poison. Its point is as sharp as a sword, and it cuts both ways like the tongue of slanderer…”

Sonja Neef, Imprint and Trace: Handwriting in the Age of Technology, Reaktion Books: London 2011.


  1. The more things change, the more things stay the same. The sharp (pun intended) observation about the steel pen shows how we quite often relate writing instruments to weaponry... and we still do. Some for example describe Rotring 600's as stealth tools. I think it is good that new writing tools are put to the sword (here we go again) - that way only the best will survive a searching public examination. Hence Fountain Pens, Dip Pens and Wooden Pencils have survived the test of time. K

  2. I haven't read Sonja Neef's book, which seems worthwhile, but M. Janin sounds like he has a touch of industry-phobia, fear of relatively cheap goods made by barely understood processes in huge quantities, etc. (Think about what radio and television did to the home musical recital, as an example of technology whomping over cultural expression.)

    K, I agree, but fountain pens and dip pens are niche products, at least in the States. Jack/Ohio