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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.

Styluses were first used by the ancient Mesopotamians in order to write in cuneiform, usually made out of 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. 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 word was borrowed from Latin stilus, that was taken from an Etruscan word that has its origin in Greek στυλος = "pillar".


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.

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.

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 had to be. The latter stylus for vinyl records were made out of Sapphire or diamond.

Modern use

Today, the term stylus often refers to an input method usually used in PDAs and graphics tablets. 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, or produces brushstrokes in a computer screen, respectively. Styli are also used with the Nintendo DS hand-held 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.