The history of writing and the timeline of its development show how it has been invented and evolved over thousands of years. The invention of writing is remarkable because it facilitates communication over great distances and the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next like no other tool. Writing was first invented in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley around 3500 BC, and during its timeline, it spread to Crete, China, and Mesoamerica.
The Invention of Writing
Evidence suggests that ancient cave paintings depicting pictures and symbols were used as a written language by at least some early populations. The Sumerians of Mesopotamia created the first true alphabet approximately 3500 BC. A slew of other prehistoric societies adopted writing not long after, mostly for administrative and arithmetic purposes. Writing’s rise to prominence coincided with an increase in the authority of rulers. Many ancient writings, including stone tablets, celebrate the achievements of rulers and credit divine intervention for their triumph.
In the Sinai area, about 1450–1150 BC, the earliest alphabets were created from the Egyptian hieroglyphs by the Semitic people living around Egypt. In the 11th century BC, Phoenician merchants adopted this early alphabet and transformed it, which later gave birth to the Greek and Latin alphabets of Europe. Manuscripts were the only reliable means of copying texts for a long time. However, things changed as printing became widely available.
By examining the primary purpose of the symbols, the writing systems can be classified as either logographic, syllabic, or alphabetic. Some alphabets, however, include two distinct sets of symbols. Each symbol of the logographic alphabet stands for a whole word. One such system, which also employs syllabic characters, is the Chinese alphabet. The problem is that a huge number of symbols are required for this system (Chinese has 50,000 characters). Babylonian cuneiform comprises 700 symbols.
In the alphabet of letters, each symbol stands for a sound. For this reason, the alphabet only requires a very limited set of symbols—around 26 in most cases.
40,000 BC – Pictographic Writing
The timeline of the history of writing started with paintings and more specifically with pictographs. Before writing was invented some 37,000 years later, information was preserved on cave walls in the form of drawings, or pictographs. The red ochre pictographs in Spain’s Cave of El Castillo, which date to more than 40,000 BC, are the earliest known examples of pictographs.
Especially around 9,000 BC, pictographs were utilized around the globe. The development of the first pictographic writing systems, which occurred some 4,000 years later, contributed significantly to their widespread adoption. Pictographs have been used for centuries to convey meaning.
Even though pictographs technically represent spoken words, not all academics consider them to be “genuine” writing. This ancient Roman floor mosaic from Pompeii with the “beware of the dog” warning, dated to 79 AD, and today’s street signs for dogs both convey the same message. These symbols can be interpreted as the word “dog” in any language.
There is not much you can do with a pictograph. But it is the oldest form of writing that is still in use today in the timeline of the history of writing. The only places they are still in use are on street signs, maps, and garment tags.
3500 BC – Cuneiform Writing Created
In the timeline of the history of writing, the Sumerians of Mesopotamia are known for creating the first true alphabetic writing system in 3500 BC. This cuneiform writing paved the way for the development of advanced civilizations. A reed stylus leaves angular impressions on wet clay when used for writing.
Pictographs, in contrast to cuneiform, use pictures to express words or concepts. Initial cuneiforms appeared in Sumer as pictograms in the 30th century BC. A blunt reed stylus was used to create the first wedge shapes, which ultimately gave way to more abstract and recognizable forms.
Along with the invention of the wheel by the Sumerians in 3500 BC, cuneiform writing is often regarded as one of the greatest achievements of the Sumerians. The written works were able to flourish as a result of their efforts.
3200 BC – Egyptian Hieroglyphs
Writing first evolved in Egypt around 3200 BC, around three centuries after cuneiform was created. A kind of pictographic writing, this alphabet represents both spoken and written language via a system of symbols. Early Egyptian sign systems had around 800 symbols. Over 6,000 symbols had been added to the Egyptian written language by 300 BC. The environment and social life provided inspiration for many Egyptian hieroglyphs. As late as the 4th century AD, the Egyptian people were still using hieroglyphs.
2285 BC – Earliest Author Known by Name
Enheduanna, who lived between the years 2285 and 2250 BC, was the daughter of King Sargon I of Akkad and is sometimes regarded as the first author in history. The warrior king Sargon I appointed this author as high priestess of the most revered temple in all of Sumer, which is located in the city of Ur, and charged her with fusing the doctrines and rituals of the Sumerian and Akkadian religions in order to ensure the continuity of his empire. In that regard, she was also the earliest known propagandist. Her prayers, hymns, and poems were frequently repeated and created a lasting impression that influenced contemporary literary genres.
1400 BC – Chinese Writing
Wu Ding (1250–1192 BC), ruler of the Shang Dynasty, is widely credited for commissioning the first known samples of Chinese writing. Ox scapulae, tortoise shells, and bronzes from the Shang period include the oldest Chinese writing. These “oracle bones” from 1400–1200 BC, which were used for divination purposes, are the earliest surviving examples of the Chinese language. This writing system is still in use today. There are 50,000-word equivalents in the Chinese script.
1000 BC – The First Greek Writing
The emergence of the first Greek alphabet is a pivotal period in the timeline of the history of writing. At approximately 1150 BC, the first alphabets with just consonants appeared in the Levant. Among them was the Phoenician alphabet, which was adopted by other traders and eventually received its vowels from the Greeks around 1000 BC. This Greek writing gave birth to so many other languages around Europe, including the first Latin writing of the 7th century BC.
7th Century BC – The First Latin Writing
On this fibula is an inscription in Old Latin dating back to the 7th century BC, written from right to left, just like in the Etruscan writing. It is the oldest example of Latin writing.
The inscription, written in Roman characters, reads as “MANIOS MED FHEFHAKED NVMASIOI,” which means “MANIVS ME FECIT NVMERIO” in classical Latin and “Manius made me for Numerius” in English.
Originally used in the ancient Greek city of Cumae in southern Italy, the Greek alphabet served as the basis for the Latin script, also known as the Roman script. Created in the 7th century BC, the Latin alphabet is a descendant of many other writing systems, including the Etruscan alphabet, the Cumaean Greek alphabet, the Phoenician alphabet, and finally the Egyptian hieroglyphics. With the rise of the Roman Empire, the Latin alphabet eventually became widely used throughout Europe for both private and governmental communication.
There is also the “Duenos inscription,” which dates back to the 6th century BC and also displays one of the first examples of the Latin alphabet.
2nd Century BC – Invention of the Parchment Writing
In the timeline of the history of writing, people were probably using the parchment as early as the 3rd millennium BC. Because fragments of leather that had been prepared for writing were discovered in Egypt about 2500 BC. However, the success of Greek producers at Pergamon in the 2nd century BC marked the beginning of the first practical parchments.
By the 2nd century BC, the first parchment, created from dried and processed animal skins, had supplanted papyrus, derived from reed, as the preferred writing material.
The ancient city of Pergamum in Asia Minor is where parchment got its name as a writing medium, predating even paper. The King of Pergamon (197–159 BC) is credited with creating parchment.
4th Century AD – Invention of the Codex Writing
It is possible that Julius Caesar was the first to bind scrolls into papyrus codex form. At the beginning of the 1st century AD, the Romans adopted a type of folded parchment notepad called pugillares membranei.
Codexes or codices, which are book-shaped manuscripts, eventually supplanted scrolls written on parchment in the 4th century AD. Codices, a format devised by the Romans, found widespread usage with the development of Christianity.
The Codex Sinaiticus is one of the world’s oldest books, having been written by hand over 1600 years ago. The New Testament, the Christian Bible’s foundational book, is preserved in its entirety in this ancient Greek text. Four scribes contributed to the codex. Vellum parchment, crafted from the skins of donkeys or antelopes, was used to write the Codex Sinaiticus.
4th Century AD – Arabic Writing
Seven inscriptions in Jazm writing, a pre-Islamic script, have survived until the modern day. Among them, the first known use of Arabic writing dates to the 4th century AD or 328 AD. It was discovered east of Aqabah in Jabal Ram.
Other than that, the oldest surviving Arabic writing is a jumble of Greek, Syriac, and Arabic from the year 512 AD. The Nabataean variant of the Aramaic script, itself derived from Phoenician writing, is the ancestor of Arabic writing. The Hebrew and the Greek writings have their origins in the Phoenician alphabet too.
Islam’s holiest book, the Koran, is written in the Arabic alphabet. As Islam spread around the Middle East, the usage of Arabic writing grew, and it eventually became one of the most extensively used scripts.
4th Century AD – Illustrated Manuscript Writings
Writing flourished across Europe in the early Middle Ages thanks to the widespread copying of Christian scriptures. The capital letters and border paintings of illuminated manuscripts are elaborately embellished. The Vergilius Augusteus, written by Virgil in the 4th century AD, is the oldest known illuminated manuscript ever discovered. Only seven pages of this large work survived.
Between the 12th and 17th centuries, monks were the primary producers of illuminated manuscripts. These colored books were decorated with gold or silver. They used calf, sheep, or goat skin to create the pages of their illustrated manuscript writings. One of the most famous is the “Black Hours,” c. 1475–1480 AD.
1436 – Invention of the Printing Press
In the Middle Ages, writing wasn’t widely distributed due to the difficulty of manual replication. It is generally agreed that in 1436, German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press.
After the invention of the printing press, over 35,000 books were printed only in the year 1500. The printing press had spread to more than 280 cities by the same year. Just 50 years after printing’s invention, more than 9,000,000 books had been produced.
Since the development of printing with movable type, the ability to communicate in writing has been made available to a far larger audience.
1867 – Invention of the Typewriter
The first functional typewriter was created in 1867 with the assistance of American inventor Christopher Latham Sholes (1819–1890). This innovation was not granted a patent until 1868. Christopher Sholes’ typewriter is being used by a female user in the above engraving.
The Qwerty keyboard contained piano-style action keys, and with each key press, the carriage would advance one place to the left. Eventually, in 1874, Sholes sold his company to Remington.
The first practical typewriter was built in 1873 and set on a pedestal originally intended for a sewing machine. In 1874, Remington introduced its first typewriter after purchasing the patent. The typewriter is one of the most significant inventions in the writing history timeline.
1827 – Pen Created
The invention of the pen in 1827 is another significant creation in the timeline of the history of writing. The pen was invented in 1827 by the Romanian engineer, inventor, and mathematician Petrache Poenaru. However, the first known use of a pen was in the 10th century AD. The Fatimid Caliph of Egypt, Muiz, received an ink pen in 953. This pen included a reservoir that fed ink to the nib. But there is not much information regarding its design.
Poenaru’s model was similar to modern fountain pens. Because it had an ink barrel, it could be used without having to constantly refill it from the inkwell. Even though there were several problems with the layout.
The quill pen was quickly phased out once American inventor Lewis Edson Waterman (1836–1901) created the first practical pen in history. Moving on, Laszlo Biro’s pen, the Biro or ballpoint pen, was already widely used in the ’40s.
1971 – The Birth of Digital Writing
The computer engineer Ray Tomlinson of ARPANET transmitted the first computer-to-computer electronic communication (e-mail) in 1971, even before the web was invented. When personal computers became commonplace in the 1980s, so did electronic mail. Machine-to-machine communication inside an enterprise quickly caught on as a useful and practical solution. It was a remarkable point in the timeline of the history of writing. Roughly 10 million people throughout the globe had access to free online mail services in 1997. Today, this number is around 4.3 billion email users.
1992 and Present – Text Messages
Two Europeans, Friedhelm Hillebrand, and Bernard Ghillebaert developed the idea of short message service (SMS) in 1984. However, the first computer-delivered SMS was sent by software developer Neil Papworth to Richard Jarvis through the company known as Nokia in 1992, which simply said “Merry Christmas.” In the 2000s, texting gained enormous popularity. 6.1 trillion SMS messages were sent in 2010. Today, 23 billion text messages are sent every day worldwide.