Writing a comeback story: Tech-infused pens and pencils strive for relevance

Jacob2The lead pencil was invented in 1564. The ballpoint patent dates back to 1888. Markers hit stores in 1953.

Sixty years ago, with these three tools at our disposal, it seemed likely that we had humanity’s writing needs fully covered.

But the digital revolution changed everything. Pens suddenly appeared outdated. Notes demanded to get out of our legal pads and into our computers. So we picked up the keyboard.

In many ways, keyboards liberated communication. Typing to a computer allowed our writings to be easily edited and distributed across the globe.

In recent years, pens and pencils have lost even more territory as it has become socially acceptable to bring laptops and tablets into academic lectures and business meetings.

And why not?

Today’s cloud computing technology allows us to access our typed notes anywhere at any time. Comparatively, writing with a pen in 2016 is to imprison your thoughts on a piece of paper.

Yet, as we set aside our pens, something was lost. We abandoned the freedom of a blank piece of paper for a structured writing style dictated by our computer software. Furthermore, no matter how many fonts and emoji we create, digital characters can never fully capture the subtle meanings hidden in handwriting.

But today, new technology is helping pens and pencils make a comeback. Here are some of the recent inventions helping to make these tools relevant in a digital world.


What if there was a pen that could simultaneously work both in the paper and digital worlds? Smartpens bridge that gap. The latest smartpen devices, sold by companies such as Livescribe and Neo, can do all the work of a traditional ballpoint pen. However, when combined with special paper, the pens can also track your writing and transmit it to a smartphone or tablet.

The downsides to smartpens include the fact that the latest models cost more than $100—a bit more than an old-school Bic. They also only do their digitizing magic when used with special paper.

Recorder pen

One of the most common uses for writing tools is capturing the ideas from a lecture or meeting. But if that’s the purpose, why not capture the actual meeting? That’s the idea behind recorder pens.

The companies behind these devices miniaturized audio recording technology and placed it inside a standard-sized pen.

Some also have built-in video recorders, but that’s more in the realm of spy technology. Recorder pens are available from many companies in a range  of pricing options.

Pencil or Pen? Again.

Pen-like stylus tools have long been used to help people use touchscreen computers. In recent years, styli have been vastly upgraded to fully integrate with modern smartphones and tablets.

Two competing examples are the Surface Pen by Microsoft and the Apple Pencil. Both devices allow users to write and draw on their tablets.

Microsoft’s Pen includes buttons that can operate some functions on the tablet. It also has an eraser.

Apple’s Pencil has no buttons or eraser. Instead, it has highly-sensitive pressure and position sensors to capture incredibly subtle pencil movements and reduce the lag time between drawing something and seeing it appear on screen.

The Surface Pen costs $60 but is included with some tablet models. It works on all the latest Microsoft tablets.

The Apple Pencil is $99 and only works with iPad Pro models.

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