The writing reed and split nib

Mahboob Qadir


The writer is a retired Brigadier. He has extensive experience in dealing with UN matters related to strategic policy on countering violent extremism.

Fountain ink pens have been the craze and grace of an era of style and aristocratic clan. Waterman, Mont Blanc, Parker, Sheaffer’s and the likes were very high quality writing instruments and  their repairmen were actively sought after, rare to find, and highly regarded.
I recollect an old man with a small nondescript pen repair shop inside a narrow street in Hathi Chowk, Rawalpindi Cantt. He would deliberately examine the sick instrument laid flat on a felt cloth and then announce his specialist verdict which was, as a rule, always without the right of appeal or review. There was no question of any wrangling over the charges. The pen used to become as healthy as new after discharge from his repair shop.
Like a quality wrist watch, a fine ink pen was considered a sign of taste and classiness, and was regarded as a personalised possession. I know certain friends who never lent their pen as it might tell on their writing angle latter if the nib might change its poise even slightly. This finicky-ness was not without reason. There used to be a lot of stress upon flawless, well-spaced, and cursive handwriting which was considered a measure of one’s artistic sense and high culture.
The journey to today’s state of the art ink pens of which I am pained to exclude ballpoints, printers and laptops being upstarts in this celebrated company, has not been easy and is spread over hundreds of thousands of years. As societies and civilizations evolved their quest for referable knowledge, preservation of history and record of important undertakings like diplomacy, law, property, trade and treaties increased manifold. Thus languages, scripts, writing materials like animal skins, tablets, stone platelets, papyrus and even bamboo splits, writing instruments and inks began to be developed.
These developments required knowledgeable and reliable scribes, a writing pen, something to write or draw upon and most importantly to leave a lasting impression, in other words the inescapable but humble ink and a chisel or stylus depending upon the period of evolution. It all boiled down to the pen itself without which nothing could be reduced to writing. This extremely powerful instrument evolved from truly humble origins.
As man graduated from etchings on rocks and clay tablets, the Chinese took up reed writing around 4000BC followed by Egyptians who went on to reed pen and ink  for writing on parchment by about 2500BC. Reeds were found plentifully along the sea marshes and banks of that eternal River Nile and innumerable Chinese waterways and swamps. Thin branches of this humble bush were to write some of the most famous letters, commands and books in human history on parchments, papyrus and eventually paper.
Reed stick would be sliced in a slant angle at one end whose tip would then be clipped squarely to make a writing tip. A careful split would be made to retain ink in its nozzle after dipping into inkwell. Reed pens were quite messy whose nib would bend under slightly extra pressure and needed redoing every now and then with a sharp knife. Diligent but pressed for time scribes discovered a better and more robust instrument. It was the soft feather of a goose called quill. Again this was a water bird whose feathers were available aplenty around wetlands and lakes.
The rise to fountain pen was sharp and quite easy. The reservoir pen, the closest ancestor of fountain pen, dates back to 953 AD when Muad Bin Muiz, the Egyptian caliph, demanded a pen which should be less smudgy for fingers and clothes both. He was provided with a pen that held ink in a reservoir behind the nib. Not that quills had been any lesser. They remained in use till 18th Century till geese may have protested being disrobed so mercilessly and publicly. The US Constitution was written with a quill.
Helped by the Industrial revolution, fountain pens arrived in mass and quite quickly by early 19th Century. My medium-tipped Parker fountain pen nib is 35 years old, has consumed three pen bodies but glides over paper with the ease and grace of a ballerina. It is such a sensuous sensation to write with jet black Pelikan ink which flows immaculately through the intricate ink feed mechanism of a finely-crafted Parker pen. The nib slides, dots, dips and rises with perfectly smooth agile strokes. What an incalculable ecstasy is writing with a quality fountain pen.
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