Every nation, in its turn, contributed some letters to the common stock; in a happy moment it was discovered, that each monosyllable terminated by a sound which, with very little variation, was repeated in all. Nor was it difficult to ascertain the number of these which were invariably fixed to the four or five inflexions of voice. Thus were vowels added to consonants, and mankind gradually arrived at the greatest of all inventions, - the invention of the alphabet. But who was the man, or what his nation, to whom the honour of this invention is due, is still disputed by the learned, though the majority agree in considering the presumption to be strongest in favour of Thoth, a son of Mizraim, the father of the Egyptians.
This noble invention diminished to aprodigious extent the difficulty of writing, it shortened the labour of memory, and was capable of expressing all subjects, and all ideas. The Phoenieians obtained a knowledge of the system, imparted it to the Greeks, whence it was gradually spread over the continent to our islands, and was at length diffused over the whole world. The first substance used for writing upon is considered to have been dried leaves; but there is much evidence to show, that plates of brass, lead, wood, stone, ivory, and wax, were also used. The ancients generally used tables covered with a coat of wax, on which they wrote with a style, a piece of iron pointed at the end, with which they made the letters, and blunt or flat at the other end, which they used for rubbing out what they had written, either when they wished to make any alteration or to use the table for other writings. By a good or bad style, therefore, they meant at first simply to denote the quality of the instrument with which they wrote.
The term was afterwards applied metaphorically to the language: in which sense it is now used.
Among the different substances that were employed for writing upon, before the art of making paper from linen-rags was discovered, we find the earliest to have been these tables of wood, made smooth, and covered with wax. But as what was written on wax might easily be defaced, leaves of the papyrus, a kind of flag, which grew in great abundance in the marshes of Egypt, were dried, and by a particular process prepared for writing. Sheets were also separated for the same purpose from the stem of the plant. On these, the letters were engraved with an instrument similar to that used for writing on wax. The substance so prepared was called charta, from a city of Tyre of that name, near which the plant was also found. The words folia, leaves, and charta paper, thus derived, are well known among ourselves.
As in writing a treatise, a great number of these leaves or sheets was required, they were joined together by making a hole and passing a string through each of them. With the same string passed several times round them, they were confined, to prevent their separating, and being injured or lost when no one was reading them; whence it is supposed that a roll or bundle of them obtained the name of a volumen, or volume. Those who have seen specimens of the Burmese writing on leaves thus collected, may form an accurate notion of an ancient papyrus volume.
Another article used for writing, was the inner bark of certain trees. This was prepared by beating it, and then cementing it together by a solution of gum. As the inner bark of trees is called liber, the volumes of books were thence called libri, a name they still retain. Vellum, the last substance to be mentioned, is said to owe its origin to the following circumstance. Eumanes, King of Pergamus, being desirous of forming a library that should equal, or exceed in number the far-famed library of Alexandria, Ptolemy, King of Egypt, with a view of frustrating his design, prohibited the exportation of the papyrus. This excited the industry of some artists in the court of Eumanes: they contrived a method of preparing the skins of sheep, and it was called vellum, from vellus, a fleece or skin; and parchment, from Pergamus, the place where the art of preparing it was discovered: or, if not discovered, it was there improved, and first brought into general use.
The Greeks and Romans as well as most of the eastern nations adopted the form of the continuous roll. There were two rollers, one at each end of the roll, round one of which the whole manuscript was folded: the reader unrolled one end, and as he proceeded, he rolled it upon the empty roller until the whole was transferred from one roller to the other. Notwithstanding the great inconvenience which this contrivance inflicts upon readers, especially when they have occasion to refresh their minds by occasional references to passages lying under many coils of the roll, our Court of Chancery retains the "good old practice," for the purpose, it would almost appear, of deterring people from reading the specifications of patents and other public records. Persons who go to read these documents at the Inrolment Office, or The Rolls Chapel Office, should prepare themselves to have the sleeves and breasts of their coats grouted in by the lime dust by which the rolls of parchment are whitened!
Although much information upon the manners of the Romans has been obtained by the discovery of two Roman cities, which had been hidden by the cinders thrown from Mount Vesuvius, by the eruption about the year a. d. 79; but little more is known upon the subject of their books and manner of writing, than was known before the excavations. Rolls of brittle material, about eight inches long and about two inches in thickness, were frequently discovered by the workmen during the operations at Pompeii; but it was not first known that these were books: upon examination, however, they proved to be papyrus glued together. At one end of most of them was a label, upon which was written the title of the book, and the author's name. Of these rolls, Camillo Paderni carried away three hundred and thirty-seven, which he collected from the rubbish during twelve days which he passed among the ruins of Pompeii,
The papyrus has become so brittle, in consequence of the heat of the ashes. that no one has yet succeeded, to any extent, in unrolling them. Piassi, a monk, discovered a way of unrolling them, by putting thin slices of onion between the folds of the manuscript as he carefully separated them with a knife. This is the best contrivance which has yet been adopted, but it cannot be said to have proved successful. After all the time and money which have been bestowed upon this object, it is to be regretted that few works have been recovered. Some of these rolls are forty feet in length; many of them have been taken to the University of Cambridge, where they have remained many years, without any attempt having been made to unrol them.
The labour bestowed upon ancient manuscript books was immense. As they were intended to answer all the purposes of a modern printed book, their durability was of the greatest importance. The ancient copyists therefore paid great attention to the manufacture of their inks, as well as the parchment; in this art they were so successful, that most of the very ancient manuscripts which are now extant, are as legible, and the ink is as black and bright, as if they had been but just written. It is supposed that the ink owes this beautiful colour to the lamp-black. Some ink was found in a glass bottle at Herculaneum, which was very thick and oily. It was owing, perhaps, to its glutinous nature, that the persons employed to take down the speeches delivered by the orators in the Forum, preferred writing on waxen tablets, which required a very slight touch to mark them. It would have been an operation almost laborious to write with such ink as this found at Herculaneum, and the writer would have proceeded very slowly, and would not have been able to follow the speaker. There is one great objection to this ink; it does not enter sufficiently into the parchment, and is, therefore, easily obliterated.
The Romans made ink of various colours; the emperors in the latter times, when wealth and luxury had destroyed the empire, endeavoured to make an appearance of grandeur, by writing with purple ink. Materials more valuable were sometimes used, when the writings were of value; the works of Homer were written in letters of gold, upon a roll 120 feet long, formed of the intestines of serpents. 'The Hebrews also are remarkable for the beauty of their manuscripts; the letters are as evenly formed as it would be possible to form them in a type; it is almost impossible to believe that they can lave been written by a pen. All the eastern nations make their pens of reeds, which were well suited to the broad character of their writing; the reeds are brought from the East to Europe, and are used by the scholars in eastern literature; they are still used by many people in the East at this day. Reeds were used by other nations also. Pens made of them were discovered during the excavations at Pompeii; they are cut like a quill pen, except that the nib is much broader.
The quill pen appears to have been introduced about the year 600; the word penna, meaning a quill, is not found, it is said, in any work of an earlier period; previous to that date, the word calamus was used, which signifies a reed. Paper was introduced into Europe in the ninth or tenth century. It had previously been manufactured in China from a very remote period. About the year 716 a manufactory of it was established at Mecca, from whence it was brought by the Greeks to Constantinople.
We might have extended this article by some account of modern writing, but our space will not admit of it; and it is scarcely needful, as most of our readers are well informed upon the matter. We shall therefore conclude by a few remarks upon the peculiar direction of the writings of different nations. The Jews write from the right hand to the left; the Chinese from the top to the bottom; most other nations write as we do, from the left to the right.