stylus: see pen.

A stylus (plural: styli or styluses) is a writing utensil. The word is also used for a computer accessory (PDAs). It usually refers to a narrow elongated staff, similar to a modern ballpoint pen. Many styluses are heavily curved to be held more easily.

Styli were first used by the ancient Mesopotamians in order to write in cuneiform, Egyptians (Middle Kingdom), and the Minoans of Crete (Linear A and Cretan Hieroglyphic) made in various materials: reeds that grew on the sides of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and in marshes and down to Egypt where the Egyptians used styluses from sliced reeds with sharp points; bone and metal styli were also used. Cuneiform was entirely based on the "wedge-shaped" mark that the end of a cut reed made when pushed into a clay tablet, hence the name "cuneiform" from Latin cuneus = "wedge". The linear writings of Crete in the first half of the second millennium BC were made on sun dried clay tablets that were left to dry in order to become 'leather' hard before they were incised by the stylus. The linear nature of the writing was also dictated by the use of the stylus.


Styli were used from classical times until the nineteenth century to write on wax tablets (tabulae), which were used for various purposes, from secretaries' notes to recording accounts. Some wax-tablets have been preserved in waterlogged deposits, for example in the Roman fort at Vindolanda on Hadrian's Wall. One end of such styli was pointed for writing and the other was flattened into a broad shape for erasing.


The word stylus along with the word "style" came from the Latin word stilus meaning: "a stake; a pointed instrument, used by the Romans, for writing upon wax tablets", it also comes from the word "stylo" which is french for "pen". The spelling was influenced by the Greek word στύλος meaning "column" or "pillar". According to the 1875 London Dictionary of Greek & Roman Antiquities a Stilus is "an object tapering like an architectural column; a metal instrument resembling a pencil in size and shape, used for writing or recording impressions upon waxed tablets. It signifies:

"An iron instrument (Ov. Met. IX.521; Martial, XIV.21), resembling a pencil in size and shape, used for writing upon waxed tablets (Plaut. Bacch. IV.4.63; Plin. H.N. XXXIV.14). At one end it was sharpened to a point for scratching the characters upon the wax (Quintil. i.1 §27), while the other end being flat and circular served to render the surface of the tablets smooth again, and so to obliterate what had been written. Thus, vertere stilum means to erase, and hence to correct, as in the well-known precept saepe stilum vertas (Hor. Sat. 1.10.72; Cic. Verr. II.41)."

Use in Arts

Styli are used in various arts and crafts still. Example situations: rubbing off dry transfer letters, tracing designs onto a new surface with carbon paper, and hand embossing. Styli are also used to engrave into materials like metal or clay.

Styli are used to make dots as found in folk art and Mexican potterty artifacts. Oaxaca dot art is created using Styli.

Use in music recording and reproduction

In the sound recording industry, a stylus is a phonograph or gramophone needle used to play back sound on gramophone records, as well as to record the sound indentations on the master record.

Several technologies were used to record the sounds, beginning with wax cylinders. The harder the material used, the harder the stylus has to be. The styli for playing vinyl records are made out of Sapphire or diamond.

Modern use

Today, the term stylus often refers to an input method usually used in PDAs, graphics tablets, Tablet PCs, and UMPCs. In this method, a stylus that secretes no ink touches a touch screen instead of a finger to avoid getting the natural oil from one's hands on the screen. It also improves precision of touch, allowing use of smaller interface elements. Stylus may be used for handwriting or drawing on the screen. Styli are also used with the Nintendo DS handheld gaming device, which has two screens, the bottom one being touch-sensitive.

A stylus may also be used to scribe a recording into smoked foil or glass. In various instruments this method may be used instead of a pen for recording as it has the advantage of being able to operate over a wide temperature range, does not clog or dry prematurely, and has very small friction in comparison to other methods. These characteristics were useful in certain types of early seismographs and in recording barographs used in determining sailplane altitude records.

The sharpest stylus possible has a single atom at its tip. Such styli are used in scanning tunneling microscopes.


See also

Search another word or see styluson Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature