What is a Stylus?

Carol Francois

A stylus is a pen-shaped plastic device used to interact with a touch screen of a computer related device. There are a wide range of types and materials available, ranging from composite plastic, rubber and wood. The purpose of a stylus is to allow the user to interact with a computer device without using a human finger.

A person using a stylus with a PDA.
A person using a stylus with a PDA.

The stylus has become more common due to the reduction in the price of touch screen technology. In the mid 1990s, the price for a touch screen transistor was prohibitively expensive. Due to advances in the technology, moving away from these materials to lower-cost solutions, everything from handheld computers to gaming devices may now use a stylus.

Using a stylus on a touchscreen avoids the impact of dirt and grease from using a finger.
Using a stylus on a touchscreen avoids the impact of dirt and grease from using a finger.

The modern stylus was invented in a desire to create a tool that interacted with a computer screen that was very fragile, required precise integration and to avoid the impact of oil and dirt from human fingers on the screen. The stylus gained wide acceptance when combined with touch screen technology. It was able to provide a similar feel to writing with a pen or pencil, but without any ink and with the benefit of inputting the data into a computer.

The actual history of the stylus dates back to the ancient people of Mesopotamia, located in modern Iraq.
The actual history of the stylus dates back to the ancient people of Mesopotamia, located in modern Iraq.

The actual history of the stylus dates back to the ancient people of Mesopotamia. Various different materials were used to create styli (the plural), including reeds, bone, metal and wood. They were used to write in cuneiform, making an impression in a clay tablet with a wedge or writing tool.

The use of a stylus quickly increased as writing on clay tablets, leather and other materials required detailed work that could be legible by others. The linear nature of writing further encouraged their use as a practical tool for this purpose. They were still in wide use until the middle of the 19th century.

By this stage, users had progressed from clay to wax tablets. These tablets were used for everything from student notes, account recording and creation of literary works. The stylus had also adapted over time, with one end for writing and the other end flattened for erasing.

The stylus is still used as a writing tool today, as it can be used in a wide range of temperatures, requires no ink and has a very low friction level. These features made it popular for writing into smoked glass or foil. They have also been used with seismography and sailplane records.

Tablet computers often come with a stylus.
Tablet computers often come with a stylus.

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Discussion Comments


If you enjoy gaming moving to a stylus as a play tool can be a really interesting transition. I love that it gives up a greater range of motion and the ability to use touch to make entertainment more interactive.

With handheld gaming systems that use a stylus you really get which game developers were most aware of their delivery format, as they best make use of the available stylus in there design.

I have played games with tracing activities that help you learn the characters of a language. Having a stylus is really a great thing to use with touch screen games.


I think use of the stylus with tablets really changed the world of art. It is amazing to be able to draw something and have it show up instantly on your computer. Being able to choose brush size, style and hardness also took a simple tool and allowed it to recreate any paintbrush or pencil that you can imagine.

I find that some tablets and styluses are a bit pricey, but I think the savings cost on additional art supplies are worth it. While not everyone is comfortable with the idea of abandoning traditional mediums for digital ones, I think it is a viable idea for anyone interested in branching out.


@Charred - I own a Centro stylus and have never had any issues with it. It’s cheap but it works like a champ with my PDA. The writing is very smooth and I’ve never had to recalibrate or do anything like that.


@SkyWhisperer - If you’re really interested you can make your own capacitive stylus, using diagrams and instructions you find on the Internet. They may in fact work better than the ones you can buy from the store. Some of the plans suggest using things like battery terminals, pencils, paper clips and even antistatic film to make your own poor man’s stylus.

I can't say for certain that it would work better than what you could buy in the store, but it would spare you some trial and error from buying a commercial stylus only to find that it didn’t work like you expected.


@everetra - Yes, stylus pens are weird that way. It’s not like using a pen or a pencil where you put something tangible down, like ink or lead. They are touch-sensitive instruments that are easily susceptible to glitches when interacting with the mobile device.

I bought a tablet and the stylus worked fine after awhile, then all of the sudden started acting strangely. It would make contact with the tablet before I even touched it-almost like it was hypersensitive.

I tried recalibrating it and that didn’t work. I reinstalled the latest drivers and that did nothing. Finally I bought a generic stylus and that worked fine. It’s too bad that a generic stylus works better than the manufacturer’s own instrument, but that’s what exactly what happened.


I like the stylus in principle but its implementation has been less than perfect. When I first started using the Palm stylus a few years back I had to calibrate my screen every so often when it didn’t respond properly. These screens have to be very sensitive to respond to the stylus and sometimes they need to be readjusted.

In addition you can get smudge or dirt around the edges of the screen and that affects its sensitivity and your ability to work productively. The newer models are better, but you still need to calibrate now and then.


The touch screen stylus isn't the only kind out there. I'm a little behind the times technologically speaking and don't own any electronics with touch screens, but I do remember reading about Helen Keller (and maybe Laura's sister Mary in the Little House books) writing with a different kind of stylus.

The term stylus is still used to refer to a tool for writing in Braille. It's used with heavy card-stock paper and a device called a slate. The stylus created Braille raised dots on the paper.

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