Scanning Around With Gene: The Speedball Pen

A speedball is a pen you dip in ink and use primarily for lettering. It was invented by Ross F. George, of Seattle, who also wrote and illustrated the booklet I scanned for today’s column. The booklet is titled “Elementary Alphabets and Their Construction.”
George’s idea for a new type of pen nib grew out of frustration with his lettering efforts. He took his design to the C. Howard Hunt Pen Company in 1915 and that firm released six different Speedball nibs. Click on any image for a larger version.

The pen is named for the speed at which it allows for precision lettering, both thick and thin lines. It holds a reservoir of ink.

The C. Howard Hunt Pen Company was already a pioneer in United States pen making, so the match worked out and the Speedball became a huge success; in fact, the company is now named Speedball after the iconic product.

Ross F. George was a type designer, as well; you can find a handful of his typefaces at

A good deal of lettering success, we learn, comes when you “sit erect and do not lean into your pen.” And you need your hand and wrist to make three points of contact on the desk. That’s obviously my problem.

The worst grade I ever received was for penmanship, back in the days when they taught penmanship. I never learned how to hold a pen or pencil properly, just like I never learned to type properly. So I’m envious of the examples shown here.

I suppose it’s never too late to learn how to letter properly, though I doubt I’ll get very far—it’s just too easy to fall back on the illegible handwriting I’m used to.

I know one thing for sure. If I ever do take up hand lettering, the first thing I’m going to do is buy myself a genuine Speedball pen.

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Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on
  • Anonymous says:

    Gene- thanks for sharing. I love ink! Type, lettering. You’ve just inspired me to create some inkings! Happy weekend. :)

  • Anonymous says:

    This is really great stuff. I love that poster about organising content into blocks! I was only explaining this the other day! This is a fantastic post!

  • Anonymous says:

    Beautiful. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Anonymous says:

    Thanks Gene for the halcyon memories of the written word. My Grandfather (Pietro Paulo Vincenzo Moscato) lit the fire under me at the tender age of 5 on his knee. Then, years later, someone gave me some Speedball nibs and holders…I never looked back! Here’s where Grandpa Pete’s inspirations and those Speedballs led:

    Calligraphic Variations

    Calligraphic Variations for Your Wedding

    Engraving by Hand

    BTW, some of my calligraphy is housed in The Smithsonian and Newberry Library.


  • Anonymous says:

    SOOO good to see this again :-) Thanks

  • Anonymous says:

    As usual, I enjoyed your latest scanning excursion, especially since the subject this time is something I’ve been personally interested in and involved with for so long (lettering and type). I have quite a few old lettering books, including a few editions of the Speedball manual.

    One little thing: You mention that Ross F. George was also a type designer, with a link to some of “his typefaces” on This isn’t quite true. Most of the fonts credited to him there were actually created by modern digital type designers based on his Speedball lettering models, and it even says so in some cases.

    His “Stunt Roman” was probably the earliest example where a typeface was based on his lettering (as “Celtic” and “University Roman” both back in the sixties).

    But, as far as I know, he was never involved in typeface design directly.

  • marksimonson says:

    Oops, forgot I wasn’t signed in when I posted that. Not that it matters that much, but just so you know it’s coming from someone who knows something about type history.

    Mark Simonson

  • GeneGable says:

    Thanks, Mark, for the clarification about Ross George’s type designs. I should have done a little more homework. Nonetheless, it’s great to see his work put into digital form. Thanks, as always, for the comments.

  • Jay J Nelson says:

    Gene: Thanks for showing all this Speedball goodness to the world. It’s exactly how I started in this crazy industry — 8th grade and a need to label my cassette tapes!

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