I recently toured Jefferson's Monticello and I was struck during the tour of the library by the description of some of the challenges that Jefferson faced using quill pens.

This seemed particularly surprising because the library is filled with finely crafted metal tools and technology (clocks, a small metal orrey, drafting tools, etc...).

What prevented the development and adoption of metal dip pens until the early 19th century despite seemingly clear evidence that the technology for their creation existed much earlier?

BONUS: Why, if they did exist, would Jefferson, a renowned technophile, not have taken up their use?

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    Don't you think it's because those metal dip pens need factories, metal, and workers to produce them, but the quill is already there, it naturally grows on geese, you don't need doing anything to make it, just cut the tip?
    – Yellow Sky
    Oct 22, 2019 at 14:28
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    I don't know but it sounds like if you back that up with some evidence, you might have an answer.
    – DQdlM
    Oct 22, 2019 at 14:29
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    Why do they still make metal dip pens today when ball points and felt tips exist? Some people just like them. New technology doesn't necessarily invalidate old. Oct 23, 2019 at 16:05
  • Why do pencils and pens still exist today when many people have a computer in their pocket?
    – Tal
    Oct 23, 2019 at 17:31
  • @Tal well that's a little different. You can't draw on your phone easily, nor can you make free form lists or notes as easily. Paper is just superior to a computer for many tasks.
    – Brad
    Oct 23, 2019 at 17:56

1 Answer 1


The metal dip pens existed since the times when Britain was a Roman province. Also, they are known to be used in the Middle ages and Renaissance times. That is, they were used alongside the quill pens. However, those old metal pens were hand-made. It is only after the Industrial Revolution that their mass production became available. John Mitchell pioneered mass production of steel pens in 1822; prior to that the quill pen had been the most common form of writing instrument. The quill is much cheaper than a hand-made metal dip pen. It naturally grows on geese. You don't need to do anything to make it: just cut the tip. Only the mass production made the metal pens cheaper than the quill pens. The quill pen is still the tool of choice for a few calligraphers who noted that quills provide an unmatched sharp stroke as well as greater flexibility than a steel pen.

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    I also wonder if there was some hesitance from people who didn't want to rip their work.
    – John Dee
    Oct 22, 2019 at 19:17
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    There is a lot of care needed in properly preparing a feather as a pen - it isn't as simple as pluck, cut, and go as it needs to be aged and tempered to get the right stiffness (if you want it for proper use rather than as a curiosity). When properly made a quill writes more smoothly than a metal nib but its cure is important to the consistency and durability. Oct 22, 2019 at 20:03
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    @pluckedkiwi - With all due respect to your nickname, I should notice that everyone could properly prepare a feather as a pen at home using just a natural feather and a small knife, although making a metal dip pen needs a fine turner's skill, especially for splitting the tip, not to mention the smith's skill for making its thin body, plus corresponding numerous fine tools, plus a workshop with a furnace.
    – Yellow Sky
    Oct 22, 2019 at 21:19
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    This is true to many inventions. Many modern tools and gadgets (especially non-electrical ones) were invented much earlier than most people would think, but they were extremely expensive before mass production and mass transportation was able to push the prices down. Now you can go to any hardware store and buy a bucket full of nails, screws or bolts for basically pocket change, but even such simple things were extremely expensive before the industrial revolution, as they had to be made by hand by experienced craftsmen one at a time.
    – vsz
    Oct 23, 2019 at 6:13
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    @YellowSky I did not mean to imply that it was not something anyone could learn to do, merely that "you don't need to do anything to make it, just cut the tip" is grossly misleading. While you could kind of make a raw feather work, it will not give a good result. Just pluck, cut, and scribble is not a reasonable expectation. Large birds were certainly more available than metal of sufficient high quality, to say nothing of the jeweler's metalworking skills, but quills still took deliberate preparation and a learned technique. Oct 23, 2019 at 18:37

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