Before the Amazing Ballpoint Pen
Ballpoint pens. You use them, you lose them. You collect them from stores, offices and banks. You leave them behind in restaurants, schools and airplane seats. Ballpoint pens are more common than soda bottles, more common than plastic food tubs, even more common than traveling coffee mugs.
But what was life like BEFORE the invention of the ballpoint pen? Think back to times of cuneiform tablets, when bits of stone were pressed into clay tablets to preserve tallies. Pity the poor Sumerian scribe staying up all night to protect his drying tablets.
In the beginning…
Fast forward to the quill pen. Quill pens date back to about the sixth century BCE (or BC if you prefer) and were still in common use only 200 years ago. A very successful technology!
But writing with a quill still requires you to keep dipping your pen into an open ink pot. Ink has inherent risk.
- Ink spills.
- Ink drips.
- Ink attracts sleeves.
- Ink pots tempt young male students into mischief with the ends of other young students’ braids.
But ink poses another more subtle problem that we in the age of the ballpoint pen have no awareness of. The ink used for writing with a quill takes significant time to dry.
So what do you do when your cruel stepmother threatens to marry you off to a nasty stranger for gold?
If you lift your desperate plea for help from the desk too early or wave it around in the air to dry it, the ink will dribble and smear. Your desire to “run” might look like a desire for “fun” which could be quite confusing to the white knight you are counting on to save you.
The need for “pounce”
Quill and ink writers require another accessory, pounce – more commonly called “sand.” Pounce is finely powdered cuttlefish bone that is applied to a finished missive from a container similar to modern day salt shaker. (A cuttlefish is a member of the same family of invertebrates as the squid – in case you were wondering.)
Excess ink is absorbed by the pounce and then excess pounce is carefully shaken off of the paper into a collector to be returned to the pounce jar.
With pounce a written page could be dried ready to fold, seal and throw out the window in only 10 seconds, which is less than a microsecond in medieval time. Pounce is a required accessory to enable your white knight to stage your dramatic rescue.
But alas, pounce comes with its own problems, as evidenced by this excerpt from “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” by J. W. Von Goethe.
“One thing, however, I must request: *use no more writing-sand with the dear notes you send me*. Today I raised your letter hastily to my lips, and it set my teeth on edge.”
Yes, letters that are dried with pounce are gritty. They shed “sand” as they travel and even onto the desk of the recipient. Worse if an unwary reader mishandles the note, he is likely to stain his fingertips with gritty ink.
Now consider the marvel that is the ballpoint pen. The ink adheres to the paper instantly. Your letters don’t smear. Your sleeve doesn’t stain. You can load a new ink cartridge without even a single spilled drop. Of course ball point pens are so abundant now that few bother to reload them.
But if they are as common as empty soda bottles, ballpoint pens are a technological marvel. Stay tuned for our next adventure in the blog-o-sphere where we answer the question, “Did NASA really spend millions to develop a ballpoint pen that could work in space?”