Quills

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In 1943--seventy years ago--a Hungarian Jew named Laszlo Biro did something significant: he patented a new writing tool. If you've spent time around England, you may be able to guess what it was: the ballpoint pen. Popularized by World War II RAF pilots, who found its more viscous ink better for writing at altitude, the so-called "biro" rapidly replaced the more delicate and expensive fountain pen as the dominant writing implement. So cheap and easily available is the ballpoint that the typical home or office may have dozens of them lying around, and the loss of one is a matter of no import at all, while the gift of a fountain pen--and the loss of one!--is estimable indeed.

The fountain pen, about a century old when Biro filed his patent, was a combination of two technologies: a reservoir of ink and a strong steel nib. The former was the big news, getting rid of the need for the writer to dip his pen into an inkwell repeatedly. The latter had been around for about a generation, having been developed in England in the 1820s to replace the venerable quill pen, which was made from the wing feather of a bird (preferably a goose). The quill itself had been around since the Middle Ages, when it replaced the even older reed pen, largely because it held a point longer. But until 1822, all had to be dipped.

Basically, a considerable period of human history saw writing being done with a vegetable device, until it was discovered that an animal-based version of that same device was more durable. After a millennium or so, an even more durable metal version was invented and used for about a century. And then, about seventy years back, a completely new technology for putting ink on the page was developed.

Durability, as you can see, was a major concern for generations of writers, and to extend the life of their pens, they developed a writing technique known as cursive, which allowed the writer to keep the point on the page, rather than forcing it against the page repeatedly. By the 17th century, a fairly standard form of cursive had developed in the English-speaking world, and it made its way into the classroom soon after; my ancestors learned it in their various schools, and when I entered third grade in the fall of 1971, I too was taught the basics of how to join my letters together. I struggled with the task for several years, but in seventh grade, facing the need to take class notes at some length for the first time, I switched to a faster, more legible style of writing: printing.

Why was I able to do this? Because unlike my grandparents' school, mine had ballpoints. Ballpoints can be lifted and pressed onto the page repeatedly, as hard and as often as you like. They're not so fragile that they require a whole new system of writing, and you don't risk wiping out a huge chunk of your dad's salary if you misuse or misplace one.

I did not use a fountain pen or dip pen until I was 14 and got interested in calligraphy; for everything I wrote regularly--notes, letters, and school assignments--ballpoints were the pen of choice, and my go-to writing tool until I started typing papers in college. There my work was primarily done on an old IBM Selectric, but by graduate school it had become apparent that I'd have to learn to work on a computer. I didn't do it willingly, but I learned how word processing was done and have never looked back. Everything I have published (and the vast majority of what I have written) has been written on a computer since I finished my M.A.T. in 1989.

A brief digression: In 1908, Henry Ford introduced the Model T, which wasn't the first actual automobile, but was the first to gain widespread popularity. It was almost exactly 70 years later that I took driver's education and earned my license. My driver's ed curriculum, I should note, did not involve the Model T; I learned to drive in an Oldsmobile with an automatic transmission, a V8 engine, seat belts, radial tires, and a host of other features developed since the Tin Lizzy's day. And I certainly didn't spend any time learning how to handle the transportation system on which most people relied BEFORE the Model T's introduction; what purpose would there have been in requiring me to learn the proper operation of a buggy, or the care and feeding of a horse? We didn't have a buggy, and we certainly had neither a place to keep a horse nor the means to take care of it.

But today, I hear cries from many quarters bemoaning the loss of cursive writing. In 2006, only 15 percent of the students taking the SAT wrote their essays in cursive, and in response to such alarming statistics, the state of North Carolina has considered (among its many recent attempts to turn back the clock) legislation to require the teaching of cursive in schools.

What do I say in 2013 in response to the impending extinction of cursive?

Exactly what I would have said in 1978 if the state of North Carolina had tried to force me to learn the proper use of the buggy whip and curry comb:

"Your horse is pretty, and I'm sure it's very nice, but for all but a handful of people, it's completely obsolete. In fact, even the technology that replaced your horse is obsolete now."

Sorry, folks. At some point, your school days have to stop being the model for the current generation's school days. Or do you want their history lessons to end before D-Day as well?

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on September 15, 2013 1:08 AM.

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