By George Lindsry (Birmingham)
Thr modern implement for writing with a fluid is a very different thing to the pen of former times–the stylus and the calamus of the ancients, for example, which were used chiefly on the prepared bark of trees, palm leaves, or the papyrus of the Egyptians. Quill pens, still affected by a few old-fashioned penmen, only came into general use after the introduction of modern writing paper, and were made in immense quantities from goose feathers, now utilized for other purposes in connection with the industrial arts. The English name "pen" is from the Latin penna, a feather.
During the last century many experiments were made to improve the quill pen, the great defect of which was found to be its constant liability to injury from mere ordinary use, and the trouble of frequent mending; moreover, even the most skilful maker could not ensure uniformity of quality, and any variation in this respect affected the writer's work. These efforts were chiefly directed to fitting small metal, or even ruby points, to the nib of the quill pen, but the fineness and delicacy of the operation were so great, that but very little success attended the experiments. The quill, however, is not altogether discarded. A pen formed of the goose quill, in the shape of a steel-pen nib, is at the present time extensively made in Paris, and commonly used in England and the Colonies. The outer wing quills make the best pens of this kind, and some writers prefer them as a medium between the old style of quill pen and the steel pen. Ingenious machinery is used to manipulate the material to advantage: a machine with guides and a small circular saw, having very fine teeth, slits the quill, the concave halves of which are afterwards pressed, pointed, and slit under dies, in the same mode as steel pens. No waste is permitted, the plume or feather portion of the quill being utilized in the manufacture of children's shuttlecocks, or dyed and used by the makers of artificial flowers, &c.
The steel pen is of comparatively modern invention. At the beginning of this century pens began to be made wholly of metal; they consisted of a barrel of very thin steel, and the nibs were cut and slit so as to resemble the quill pen as closely as possible. The real inventor of the " knitting needle of civilization," as the steel pen has been not inaptly designated, has yet to be discovered. One of the earliest attempts to make a steel pen is attributed to William Gadbury, a mathematical instrument maker, who, for his own personal use, constructed a somewhat clumsy article from the mainspring of a watch, out of which the two separate halves or nibs were formed, and these being brought together were secured by a small ring or band of metal. Another amateur, Daniel Fellows, of Sedgley, Staffordshire, is said to have been one of the early metal pen makers, and a similar honour is likewise claimed for a Sheffield artisan, whose name, either from jealousy or forgetfulness, has not been recorded. The early history of steel pens is involved in obscurity, but reasoning from probabilities, I should say that Birmingham may fairly claim that the steel pen was first perfected by one of her manufacturers.
A great scientist and theologian, Dr. Joseph Priestley, was long resident in Birmingham, for whose personal use a split-ring maker named Harrison made a steel pen, with which the doctor wrote some of his famous polemical essays. It was rather rudely fashioned out of a piece of steel formed into a tube, the lower part being filed away into the shape of a pen, and the parts where the tube joined being left as the "split." Years afterwards one of the men associated with Harrison in his split-ring business–Mason by name– successfully embarked in the trade of pen making, and the same manufacturer (now Sir Josiah Mason), after realizing an immense fortune, which he has set apart to the founding of special educational and charitable institutions in the Midland metropolis, has just (January, 1876) retired from one of the largest pen factories in the world, which will henceforth be carried on under a limited liability company.
The name of Gillott deserves to occupy a foremost place in connection with steel pens, for by his own individual skill and enterprise was the first great impulse given to the trade. The early metallic pens were of very indifferent quality, and exceedingly dear. Pens which sold at from 6s. to 8s. per gross, forty years ago, are now procurable for about half the number of pence, while wages have improved, owing to the mechanical facilities of production. The chief fault of the first pens of metal was their hardness, which produced a disagreeable scratching of the paper. As early as 1820, Mr. Joseph Gillott, who dealt in the metal pens then made, hit upon an improvement, which, by removing this great defect, gave a stimulus to the manufacture, and caused it to be developed to an extent truly marvellous. This improvement consisted in making three slits instead of the single one formerly used, and by this means much greater softness and flexibility were acquired.
At the time when Mr. Gillott commenced operations, much of the beautiful machinery now in use had yet to be invented, and was subsequently invented, and for the most part perfected by himself. There were no such things as the "slip" pen, which now constitutes the staple of the trade–the thin piece of metal "raised" from the flat. Gillott adapted the press to the making of pens; he saw that this would enable him to dispense with most of the slow and laborious operations of pen making; that it would be possible to cut out the blanks, slit them, bend the metal, stamp the maker's name, and thus, by mechanical means, render production at once rapid and certain. The metal had to be prepared by annealing, pickling, and rolling for the action of the press; special dies had to be made for each size of pen, and for each operation of stamping to which the " blanks" had to be submitted; presses of improved construction–quick, light, easily worked, and yet strong enough to strike a sharp, firm blow–had to be made. And when these difficulties were overcome, there remained others not less formidable–such as hardening and tempering the metal after quitting the press, rendering the newly-made pens flexible, so as to write easily, cleaning and polishing them without injuring their fineness, and coating them with some kind of varnish, so as to render them more presentable to the eye.
This was the work which our great modern pen maker set himself to do; and with much ingenuity and unflagging perseverance he accomplished it. By degrees the press was adapted to the cutting, slitting, bending, and marking processes; machinery was devised for cleaning and polishing the pens; and experiments were made with the different qualities of steel, and the various ways of preparing it for use. At last Mr. Gillott attained the degree of excellence which has become inseparably associated with his name; and the trade ultimately reached the importance, perfection, and extent which characterize it at the present day.
Next to Mr. Gillott, perhaps, no one has done more to popularize the metallic pen than the well-known promoter of the "Perryian System of Education," Mr. James Perry. The characteristic of the "Perryian" pens was to give to the steel pen the elasticity which so closely approximates to the quill pen. Mr. Perry, with characteristic energy, almost forced the steel pen into use, when there were strong and deep-rooted prejudices against it. Commencing the manufacture himself in London, about 1824, Perry patented several varieties known as "Perryian Pens." It is stated on competent authority, that he used the best Sheffield "ribbon" steel, rolled out of wire, for which he paid 1s. per lb.; that he paid as much as 5s. per pen to the first person whom he employed to make his pens, and for years afterwards the price given to his workmen was 36s. per gross. Since the year 1828 Perry was supplied with pens of first-class quality by a Birmingham maker (Josiah Mason) who was content for many years to obscure his own name under the mark of "Perry and Co."
There are from twelve to twenty manufacturers of steel pens in Birmingham, which is now the headquarters of the trade, some of them comparatively small firms; indeed the larger houses, whose products are in repute in nearly every market at home and abroad, may be counted on the fingers of one hand. These are Joseph Gillott and Sons; Perry and Co., Limited (embracing the late firms of Sir Josiah Mason, and A. Somerville and Co.); John Mitchell; William Mitchell; and M. Turner and Co. The varieties of pens made by these manufacturers may be numbered by thousands, being of every size, shape, and finish. In some instances a single manufacturer has two or three thousand distinctive "marks" made for different buyers, who require their own names or devices impressed on the pens.
The steel of which the pens are made is of Sheffield manufacture, a large proportion of it being supplied by Messrs. Jessop. It is cast steel of the best quality, made from Swedish iron, so as to secure in its granular structure peculiar density and compactness. These sheets are rolled in Birmingham, and, as a rule, on the same premises where they are to be worked up; they measure originally about 4 feet 6 inches long by 18 inches wide, and are afterwards clipped across into short lengths from 1Â¾ to 4Â½ inches wide.
These strips are first of all packed in cast metal boxes, and placed in a muflle or furnace, where the mass is heated to a white heat. This is called annealing, a process which fits the metal for further treatment on its way to the pen maker. After twelve hours of this roasting, the strips are cooled and then placed in revolving barrels, where, by the friction of metallic particles, the scales caused by the annealing, and the rough edges are removed. The strips are next immersed for some hours in a " pickle" composed of dilute sulphuric acid, which clears away the scale and imparts an even surface to the metal.
The steel is now ready for the rolling mill. The rollers consist of metal cylinders revolving upon each other. A man and boy attend at each pair of rolls, the first introducing the strip of steel between the opposing surfaces, and the boy pulling it out considerably attenuated. From the first pair of rolls it passes through several others, until, having been reduced in thickness to about the 1/160th part of an inch, it assumes the requisite tenuity. Such is the degree of pressure employed, that the steel in passing through becomes hotter than it is sometimes convenient for unpractised hands to touch. At this stage the strip of steel is precisely the thickness of a pen, is quite flexible, and has increased in length from 18 inches to 4 feet 6 inches.
The first process of manufacture now begins, and before the series of operations have been gone through, some fifteen or sixteen distinct processes have to be completed. The strip is carried to the cutting-out room, where the pen first assumes form and shape. Here a number of women and girls are seated at benches, cutting out, by the aid of fly-presses, the future pen from the ribbon of steel before them. This is done with groat rapidity, the average product of an expert hand being 200 gross, or 28,800 pens per day. Two pens are cut out of the width of the steel, the broad part to form the tube, if it is to be a barrel pen, and the points so cutting into each other, as to leave the least possible amount of waste.
The "blanks" are next taken to be pierced. The flat blanks are placed separately on a steel die, and, by a half circular action of a lever turning an upright screw, a fine tool is pressed upon the steel, and forms the delicate centre perforation and the side slits which give flexibility to the pen. All this time the metal is in its natural state of elasticity. It is necessary, however, that it should be rendered softer, and for this purpose the pens are again placed in the muffle to be further annealed.
Then comes the marking. On each side and down the middle of the room, a number of young women are seated at work, each of whom, while using her hands to properly adjust the pen and hold it in its place, moves by the action of the foot a lever actuated by treadle and wheel, and this marks the pen. When it leaves the hand of the operator, the back of the pen is stamped with the name of a retail dealer at home or abroad, a national emblem, an heraldic device, or the representation of some notability, foreign or domestic, according to the fashion of the day. The rapidity of this process is nearly equal to that of cutting out the blanks, each workwoman marking many thousands of pens in a day.
Up to this time the pen is flat. It has next to be "raised " into the half-cylindrical form in which we see the finished pen. The flat pen is placed in a groove, and a convex tool made to descend upon it, forcing it into the groove, by means of which it is bent into the required shape.
As a rule, the value of the pen depends very much upon the perfection of the slit. Those who can remember the difficulty experienced in getting a perfect slit in a quill pen, can understand how much less easy it is to prevent the gaping of a metallic substance. The first preparatory process, after the pens leave the raising room, is to return them once more to the muffle, into which they are introduced in small iron boxes with lids, and heated to a white heat. They are then drawn out and suddenly plunged into a large tank of oil, where, by the chemical action of the liquid on the steel, the pens attain a degree of brittleness that makes them crumble to pieces when pressed between the fingers. The oil adhering to the metal is subsequently removed by agitation in circular barrels made of tin. The brittleness has next to be corrected by a process of tempering. This is done by placing the pens in a cylindrical vessel, open at one end, and turned over a fire, somewhat like a domestic coffee roaster. The action of the heat gradually changes the colour of the pens, first from a dull grey to a pale straw colour, next to a brown or bronze, and then to blue–the latter betokening the highest degree of elasticity.
The pens are still rough, being covered more or less with small metallic particles. To remove this roughness they are placed in large tin cans, with sand, pounded crucible, or some similar substance. These cans are made to revolve by steam power, until, by rubbing against each other, the pens are cleared from roughness, and are brightened to the colour of polished steel.
Another set of processes now begins–those of grinding and slitting, also performed by young women. The nib is ground by picking up each pen with a pair of pliers, and applying it with a single touch to a rapidly-revolving wheel coated with emery, first lengthwise and then across the nib. This does for the pen the same service that the scraping of a quill with the penknife would do in the case of a quill pen, i. e. weakening certain parts to ensure uniform elasticity.
Next comes the slitting, which is done with the press. In these presses the descending screw has an exactly corresponding chisel cutter, which passes down with precise accuracy, by which movement the slit is made and the pen is completed.
There is yet something more to be done before the manufactured goods are ready for the warehouse–viz., the colouring the pens brown or blue. This is effected by placing them in a metal cylinder, which is revolved over a charcoal stove at a proper heat, and removing them the instant the desired tint is imparted. Brilliancy of surface is then given by immersing the pens in a solution of shell-lac dissolved in naphtha, and after drying, they are ready to go to the hands of the workwomen, whose duty it is to examine the work, throw out the pens which are defective, and count the remainder ready for the packers. The presses, tools, and other appliances required in the pen trade are numerous and varied. In all well regulated establishments, all these tools are made and repaired by special workmen on the premises.
On reaching the warehouse, the pens are packed in neat little boxes, each containing one gross. These boxes are usually made in another part of the manufactory, by a very simple but ingenious process. Successive layers of paper are pasted on to an oblong block of wood, and when the proper thickness is obtained, the outside ornamental layer having been added, the block is pressed on each of its sides with a sliding movement against a cutter of exactly the depth of the paper material, which is thus divided into box and lid, and the imprisoned mould set free. A glazed paper lining for the sides, made in a similar way, and exactly fitting the interior, is slipped into the box, forming a shoulder for the lid, and it is then finished.
Pen-sticks or pen-holders are made by steam power, actuating a number of machines constructed for the purpose. Most of the large manufacturers of steel pens make their own pen-holders; others, in a smaller way, buy them ready made. The trees or logs of cedar, or other suitable wood, having been sawn into boards, and again slit into thin square lengths, the rounding is managed by a machine in which a tube receives the end of each length, which, as it is drawn through to the other side, is subject to the paring of a couple of revolving blades. After this the material falls out at the other end perfectly cylindrical, although rather rough. The roughness is obviated by another similar machine, and a bundle of the long rods is then carried to a large mahogany slab, through a slit in which is seen about a third part of the disc of a circular saw. The rods are laid flat upon the table, and brought against a gauge which regulates the length; they are then pushed towards the saw and cut into sticks, a dozen or so at a time. These plain sticks have yet to receive the spiral pattern so much in vogue, to have the end which receives the holder reduced in size, and the other end rounded. These operations, when applied to the commoner descriptions of pen-holders, are not effected by cutting, but by pressing; and one machine suffices for the purpose. They are placed, about fifty at a time, in a receiver, and disappear one by one into a lower chamber, where the work is completed by dies, after which the sticks make their appearance in rapid succession through a tube, and fall into a box beneath. They are afterwards polished and varnished. The metal ends for the reception of the pen nibs are put on by hand.
Gold pens are extensively made in Birmingham, and as they resist the corrosive action of the ink, they are exceedingly durable ; their durability is also greatly increased by the ingenious process of soldering on to the points of the nib minute particles of iridium, which, from their extreme hardness, resist wear for many years. Pens are also made in silver, zinc, amalgamated alloys, incorrodible platina, &c. Mr. W. E. Wiley, of the Albert Works, is the largest maker of gold pens in Birmingham. When the business of gold pen making was introduced as a local industry by Mr. Wiley thirty years ago, the retail price of such pens was a guinea each. The first of Wiley's gold pens were retailed at 5s. each, and now enormous quantities of gold pens are sold as low as a shilling each. This is owing to the adoption of improved machinery and appliances in the manufacture. At the time when gold pens were first produced by Messrs. Mordan, of London, and for many years afterwards, the usual method of slitting the pens was with the aid of diamond dust–a very costly process, since its uncertainty, by occasionally cutting wide gaps in the pens, caused no little waste of material. To remedy this, Wiley introduced a system of cutting the slit by means of emery on revolving copper cutters, which has been practised ever since. This so cheapened the production, as to enable a good quality gold pen to be sold retail at 5s., for which a guinea was formerly demanded.
The same firm afterwards introduced a German silver, or white metal pen, known as the "Perryian Bed Ink Pen," which still has an enormous sale. At these works Messrs. Wiley make pen and pencil cases in gold, silver, aluminium, gold, ivory, and vulcanite, in all patterns, shapes, and sizes, and varying in price, from half-a-crown a gross for common articles, up to the most ornate and costly that can be imagined. Some ten or dozen years ago the proprietor commenced the employment of female labour in his works, and with so much success that he has now upwards of three hundred girls trained to the work of making pencil-cases. The machinery has been specially adapted to this new order of things, and as the'pencil-cases are all produced here on the interchangeable principle, the facilities of production are enormously increased. That these means to an end have solved a difficult problem, may be gleaned from the fact, that the weekly output of finished work at this establishment exceeds the possible production of all the pencil-case makers in the kingdom under the former system. Messrs. Wiley's works are now carried, on by Messrs. Perry and Co., Limited, with Mr. Wiley as managing director.
Source: British Manufacturing Industries - Volume 3 - G. Phillips Bevan - 1876