Marshall McLuhan wrote, “A goose’s quill put an end to talk, abolished mystery, gave us architecture and towns, brought roads and armies, bureaucracies. It was the basic metaphor with which the cycle of civilization began, the step from the dark into the light of the mind. The hand that filled a paper built a city.”
The quill is also just a metaphor for all writing instruments. Maybe McLuhan didn’t know about the reed brush, which came before the reed pen, or more correctly the calamus, since the word “pen” derives from the word “penna”, or the Latin word for “quill”, before which it comes. The reed brush led to the reed pen, which led to the quill, which led to the steel nib, which led to the various types of fountain pens. Somewhere in the middle of my patent research in 2001, I realized that I could draw up a genealogy tree of the fountain pen, in order to lay out the sequence of the invention of the various writing instruments, including steel nibs, fountain pens, wooden pencils, mechanical pencils, and combos. And moreover, I could show how they grew out of one another. And then later, because genealogy and taxonomy are bed partners, I also laid out a taxonomy of the fountain pen. If you lay a genealogy tree on its side, so that it reads like a text, you get taxonomy. But more on that later.
As I worked on retrieving the patent information online on Mar 6, 2001, it occurred to me that what I was seeing was the sequence of the evolution of fountain pen technology. So I stopped for a moment to draw up the following tree. It all started with this initial, rough draft.
I know exactly when I drew it up because I placed the date on it. I place the date on every scrap of note paper involved with my various research projects because I like to leave a good paper trail. I continued with my data retrieval and inputting, but I took the time to draw up the second draft on Mar 6-7, which was more refined, and more detailed, but still quite rudimentary and crude.
By the time of the third draft, started on Mar 10, 2001 and finished up about Sept 5, 2001, which went through so many stages of revision that it almost looks like a palimpsest, I had finished the patents up till the 1910s, and I could with confidence fill in quite a lot of the empty blanks. It became quite unwieldy and cumbersome, so I never proceeded beyond this stage. If it were to be printed in a book or a magazine, it would have to be laid on its side to straddle two pages, with a staple in its navel like a centrefold pin-up for the penologists. Hence the taxonomy.
Once, a short time after this, when I was walking through the back room of a library, I noticed a rare book brought in by interlibrary loan for another patron. It was a book that dealt with the history of violin making and violin bow making. In the back of the book, I found this poster-sized illustration of the genealogy tree of violin making titled “The Development of Violin making in Italy”. I briefly considered drawing up an equally elaborate illustration of the tree of fountain pen life, but then I quickly came back to my sentences and reconsidered it and thought I would leave the drawing to someone else with skills from the past, maybe even someone from that era. In the “Zits” cartoon on a fountain-pen theme on May 2, 2014, a character in the last panel says, “If you need me, I’ll be in the past”. That’s the way I feel, sometimes, when I’m doing my pen research.