Борис Бурда
Author: Boris Burda
Journalist, writer, bard. Winner of the "Diamond Owl" intellectual game "What? Where? When?"
Liberal Arts
7 minutes for reading

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How do I take notes on the plane?

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How do I take notes on the plane?
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Before World War II, British pilots noticed that it was difficult for them to take notes during the flight — the pens were leaking due to the pressure difference (at an altitude, the air was rarefied).

How to get out of this situation?

The answer is a little later.




The history of mankind became more or less accessible for saving and studying only with the invention of writing – oral retelling of legends and traditions accumulated errors, more than any “spoiled telephone”. How the first records in history were made?

The oldest remained and found inscriptions are carved in stone. But it does not mean that the first writing tools were a hammer and a chisel — they were clearly copied from something more convenient and easy to use. The problem is that the originals have not survived through the ages.

However, for 4-5 thousand years before the present time, already quite a lot of people have written, and we even know how — with a sharpened stick on the soft clay. If the record needed to be preserved, the clay tablet could be baked — some of these tablets have been preserved to this day.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How do I take notes on the plane?
This is how they wrote in Babylon

To replace the clay tablets, the Egyptians invented papyrus — they unfolded sheets that were twisted into a tube, forming a cane stem, and, if necessary, glued several of them into a scroll, but it was ineffective to squeeze text and drawings onto them with a sharpened stick.

Another great invention helped out – ink. Someone guessed to mix black ash with sticky gum, traces of this mixture will dry up and remain for a long time (we still can read from papyrus). You can apply it to papyrus with the same sharpened stick, but it is inconvenient.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How do I take notes on the plane?
Papyrus letter

Then another unknown genius guessed to split a piece of reed. The ink will be held by surface tension in the formed gap, and when touching the papyrus, it will leave a clear and straight mark. It was already possible to draw complex hieroglyphs with such thing.




The papyrus was a very convenient host for textual information. The Egyptians gladly sold it to everyone, and it became popular not only in Egypt. But later, the Hellenistic Lords of Egypt decided to prevent everyone from acquiring books and banned the export of papyrus.

Such methods always work poorly — people will simply come up with something new. For example, in the West Asian city-state of Pergamon, they invented their own writing material — specially skins of young goats or lambs. They wrote on it with the same peaces of split reeds — why not?

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How do I take notes on the plane?
Parchment scroll

Another medium of information arose among people who lived slightly norther — the Greeks, the Romans, and later among the Slavs. After mastering the metier of beekeeping, they found another use for wax — they covered tablets with it and squeezed letters onto them. Then a new writing device appeared — a stylus, on the side it was sharp for writing, and on the other it was rounded to erase what was already written.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How do I take notes on the plane?
They wrote on wax tablets with a stylus

The Slavs later learned to write with the same pointed stick on birch bark — they simply squeezed out the inscription, and it was visible without any ink. And the Chinese drew text with ink using a brush — firstly on the expensive silk, and then on the cheap paper that was invented later.




A little later, most likely during the Early Middle Ages, a new writing device appeared, convenient, lightweight and inexpensive, pushing back all the competitors. It worked in almost the same way as a split reed — they simply began to split a bird feather.

Not all pens are suitable for writing. It is desirable that such feather was large enough for convenience, and quite thick for strength. Such feathers can be taken from swan and turkey, but the most usual bird that provided humanity with suitable feathers is, of course, the common goose.

It was best written with feathers from the left wing of a goose, from the second to the fifth row, the feather from the left wing fits better for the right hand, for left-handed people — vice versa. Before sharpening, part of the barbs was removed from the feather, than it was boiled in alkali, dried in hot sand, and only after all of that processes it was finally sharpened.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How do I take notes on the plane?
Goose feathers for writing

While sharpening, the outer end of the feather was cut obliquely, and then on the other side — up to half. A semicircular groove emerged. After that, the middle of the groove was cut with a sharp knife to create a split that holds the ink. When the pen was worn out, it was sharpened anew.

A small and a sharp knife for sharpening feathers began to be called a penknife. Now it is the name of all pocket knives —  that’s where it came from! Usually feathers were sharpened personally, just for one’s own hand. Scribes who knew how to do it were appreciated and were never left without a job.




Goose feathers, first mentioned in the 600-year source in Sevilla, reigned for a whole  millennium, but people finally found the replacement. As a matter of fact, even the ancient Greeks had bronze feathers, similar to reed feathers, but there were not a lot of them. It was difficult and expensive.

In medieval Venice, famous for its glass, glass feathers were invented – without any slits. Glass cone with spiral grooves that converging towards the tip. Surface tension forces the ink to flow down slowly onto the paper.

And in 1748 Johannes Janssen finally invented the steel nib. Indeed, the industrial production of such feathers began almost in 100 years — only in 1842 the German company Heintze & Blanckertz started their production on a serious scale, displacing goose feathers.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How do I take notes on the plane?
Steel feathers





A steel feather usually was not held in the hand — it was put on a special rod with a device for gripping it. The Germans gave it the name Federhalter — a pen holder.

In 1884, insurance agent Lewis Edson Waterman repeated the invention, that was made long ago in Ancient Egypt and recreated in Ancient Rome. They learned to attach a reservoir with some ink to the pen. So the fountain pen was reinvented and quickly became popular.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How do I take notes on the plane?
Lewis Edson Waterman

They began to make different pens: with an open nib, with a half-closed nib, with a body covered up to the hole in the nib, and with a closed nib that is practically invisible. There are pens with a musical nib, that have two slots — one for writing notes, and the other calligraphy nib — especially flexible, with the help of which you can write with pressure.

We took ink into these pens in different ways — sometimes with a moving piston or a screw that prolong the ink into the reservoir, like a medicine into a syringe, sometimes just with a pipette. Instead of my first pipette fountain pen, my father presented me a piston one. It was the only pen in the class with such piston. Everyone asked me to look and frankly envied me. But then it became common — so the glory went away…

The life of a fountain pen was largely determined by the abrasion of the nib. And in order to lengthen this period, they began to use extraordinary measures. Abrasion-resistant metals began to be used — sometimes even gold, but the most common and not that expensive, but still heavy were osmium and iridium.


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The next step, and the most important one, in the history of writing tools, was taken by a journalist, born in Hungary. However, he made his invention on another continent — in Argentina, and he is so respected there, that they even celebrate the Inventor’s Day on his birthday.

Initially, he carried the surname Schweiger (in Yiddish it means “silent man”). But in Hungary there was a period of  “Magyarization” going on, everyone was forced to take Hungarian surnames, the surname Сsendes (Chendesh is a “silent” in Hungarian) did not suit him, and he became Bíró — that is, a “judge”.

His father was a dentist — a profitable and necessary profession, and he decided to continue his business. But after graduation, he became dissapointed with it, went to work for an oil company, and even got carried away with auto racing so much that he invented an automatic transmission, and General Motors bought this patent from him. So he always loved to invent.

All sorts of “Magyarizations” and other language pressure rarely brings something good. So in Hungary, a person who previously had the surname Schweiger became so uncomfortable to live, that he moved to France, and when the Nazis came there — to Argentina, across the ocean.

There he changed his profession once again and became a journalist. He wrote, of course, with a fountain pen — in those days everyone did that. And then what he wrote was printed — not with ink, but with printing ink. Everyone saw the difference between inks, but only he noticed it.




Even the good and expensive pens of those times sometimes leaked and left stains. They also could have “skidded” — stop leaving lines on paper at all. Bíró correctly assumed that the ink was too runny. And the printing ink was thicker — why shouldn’t it be used?

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How do I take notes on the plane?
Laszlo Biro

László Bíró’s brother, György who was a professional chemist, approved of his idea and helped with experiments. But it didn’t work out — the printing ink was too thick and refused to flow out of the fountain pen at the right pace. The pen was not suitable for it, but was there anything more convenient to replace it?

An unexpected idea came up — why anyone did not try to put an ordinary ball from a ball bearing into a rod filled with ink? Let it spin and transfer the paint to the paper. After overcoming a number of difficulties, Bíró achieved his goal — the pen was to writing well.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How do I take notes on the plane?
Ballpoint pen tip

He received his first patent back in 1938 in Hungary, the second — in 1943 in Argentina. It was necessary to expand production, but who will appreciate the new technology? He need a customer who needs the conveniences that a ballpoint pen can provide, but a fountain pen cannot.




Do you remember what was written  about the problems of British pilots at the beginning — fountain pens were flowing at an altitude in a rarefied atmosphere?

The Royal Air Force became the first major customer of the novelty — it’s possible to write whatever you want at any height, ink does not flow!




With the help of British pilots, Bíró’s invention was soon appreciated with dignity. The Argentine investor Juan Meyne was found, and in 1942 it was finally possible to buy ballpoint pens, which were called “birome” — from Biro and Meyne. In some places in the world they are still called “birome” or “biro”.

In the meantime, American businessman Milton Reynolds visited Argentina, bought a birome there, and he liked it so much that he returned to America, patented this pen under the name Reynolds Rocket, invested into the advertiment and began to produce and sell them at high prices.

Meanwhile, Eversharp, which bought the patent from Biro, filed a lawsuit against Reynolds and a long patent war began. Its outcome remained unclear, because a lot of companies around the world began to produce ballpoint pens — their advantages over fountain pens were obvious.

NON-TRIVIAL SOLUTION: How do I take notes on the plane?
Evershap handle

Meanwhile, Bíró sold the license for the production of ballpoint pens to the French Baron Marcel Bich, who took a step further — he made them disposable and simply flooded the world with them. Now 92% of the pens in use are ballpoint, even after the appearance of markers.




Even in the USSR, at the Kuibyshev Ball Bearing Plant, back in 1949, the production of ball pens began. They smelled noticeably (the paint was diluted with castor oil and rosin), had an expensive price of 40 rubles, and it was possible to refill them only at the plant in Kuibyshev — go and get it …

And in my native Odesa, they appeared only in 1959 — I was in the third grade and was very upset about the teachers not allowing them, saying that they write without pressure and we will ruin our handwriting. Lord, my I graduated the last year, that calligraphy was taught!

There were problems with spare rods (with pens there were fewer issues — they were brought by sailors from detached services), and the refueling points appeared everywhere. The master picked out the ball, filled the rods with ink and put the ball in place. It wasn’t always successful — sometimes they flowed after refueling.

The bans did not hold the novelty back for a long time. Already when I was in the fifth grade, everyone wrote with “balls”, some with simple, “kilometer-long”, some with expensive, “five-kilometer-long” ones, with a large supply of ink. I also changed my father’s gift to a “ball” and wrote only using it, until I completely gave up handwriting and started typing on the computer. But when I have to sign something — I use ballpoint pen. And what are you writing with now?




There weren’t any civilization until people learned how to write. Ancient states appeared — and they immediately found ways to take notes. Culture and knowledge cannot be preserved without this.

If something useful is forbidden, people will certainly find the way to outwit the prohibition, and prohibitors will only incur losses. When Egypt forbid to export papyrus — the parchment was invented in Pergamon, and the Egyptian merchants weren’t very profitable, that’s all.

The names of things keep history. With my penknife, it’s possibble to cut bread, and cut your nails, and to open the bottle, and pick in teeth with a special toothpick, but it is still called a penknife, in the memory of those knives that were used to sharpen feathers for writing.

Ancient Egyptian fountain pens were a rare curiosity (although they had it!), and Waterman had to reinvent them. Every invention has countless amount of authors, and as a result, the struggle for priority becomes uninteresting to descendants.

Indeed, a ballpoint pen cannot be written “with pressure” — my teachers were right. And it’s in vain that ballpoint pens were banned. People began to write without pressure, but still quite readable. What is going to survive, will survive anyway, what is going to disappear, will disappear anyway. And bans won’t help for a long time.


All illustrations from open sources

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