Tabula Rasa

Or: HOW I LEARNED TO WRITE, AND HOW TECHNOLOGY HAS CHANGED IT

 

In The Beginning

I’m not quite old enough to have met Moses when he came down the mountain with the two stone tablets and the Ten Commandments.  I would have liked to see them, to find out how God inscribed that written-from-the-wrong-side, Hebrew chicken-scratching.  Did He use lightning to burn it, or a sand-blasting system to cut it in?  Making marks for others to read hadn’t changed much for a couple of millennia, but like many other things, it has evolved greatly over the last century that I’ve lived a big chunk of.  A whole lot of history has washed under my ass.

When I first went to elementary school, there was no Kindergarten.  Men worked, and women stayed home and minded the kids.  There was no need for state-funded baby-sitting, euphemistically disguised as education.  It was not till I moved into a new school building at Easter of Grade Four, that there was even a room for it, and not till the following September when it actually contained students (?).

I could read before I went to school, so I understood the, *put marks on paper to transfer ideas and information*, concept.  In Grade One we put all our marks on paper with wax crayons.  These were relatively new, historically.  They came in a six-pack of Roy G. Biv colors, no black or white.  Corporate greed and artistic pretension soon brought out the dozen-pack, which now included black.  Paper was white, so there was no need for a white crayon.

The dozen gave way to a 24-pack which included white.  Later, a 48-box required its own little wheels, and a pull-handle, and rolling luggage was invented.  Makers had to create imaginary names, like Sunburned Australian Backpacker, to describe colors never found in nature.  Salmon is a flavor!

In Grade Two, we got pencils, and pencil-crayons, sort of a cross between the crayons and pencils, only you couldn’t eat them.  If you were heavy on the sharpener, you could turn a whole box into multi-colored sawdust in a week.

In Grade Three, they trusted our mental and physical control enough to give us pens.  Back then they were straight-pens.  Dinosaurs transported cases of them to schools, to be distributed.  They were tapered rods with a flare-out at the bottom so your fingers wouldn’t slip off into the fresh ink.  Turned from wood, or moulded in this new plastic stuff, a 45 degree arc was removed from the bottom end.  Over this, a light strip of metal was riveted on, with the ends folded under to leave a little space.

Into this space were inserted nibs, the actual writing point.  Wider or narrower nibs could be used for different fonts and styles, and worn nibs could be replaced.  Ink for these pens was in a glass bottle in a hole in the upper right corner of the desk, because everyone was right-handed.  You could dunk the end of the pig-tail of the girl in front of you into the ink, but I always sat behind guys.

I have cut writing quills from seagull and farm geese feathers.  It takes quite a bit of ability to shape one so that it will pick up ink when immersed, hold it without dripping, and release it smoothly on the paper, without blotting.  The term penknife describes the tool used to create quills.

Then came fountain pens, still favored by politicians and businessmen.  They had a little lever on the side which pressed a bar against a long rubber bulb inside the body of the pen.  Pull the lever to expel the air, place the tip in the ink and release, to suck it into the pen.  It could leave the end of the pen somewhat messy, so someone developed a system where you twisted the pen body, and a little tube protruded.  Later, someone developed a plastic cartridge, like a bullet, full of ink.  Put it in the pen body, twist it down over a little hypodermic, and you’re ready to write.  The maker cutely named it Quink – QUIck-INK, get it??

The first ball-point pen was developed in 1898 by a Czech named Lazlo Biro, whose surname means “judge”.  The British tend to use the abbreviation biro instead of saying ball-point pen.  The technology had to wait until after W.W. II for production ability to be able to produce them cheaply.

Early typists had to be as close to perfect as possible, because corrections were almost impossible.  A hard eraser could remove an incorrect stroke, but the paper was gouged – the mistake obvious.  In 1951, Bette Nesmith Graham, mother of The Monkees’ Mike Nesmith, developed a correction fluid called Liquid Paper.  It could be painted over a mistake like fingernail polish.

The road to computers started with an electronic typewriter which held up to thirty strokes before printing them.  If you made a mistake, you had time to tell the machine to correct it.  It was like signing your name on one of those electronic pads.  The difference between what your fingers were doing, and what your eyes saw, was disconcerting.

And so, we come to computers and printers.  With my manual dexterity problems, I could never have passed a 1950s typing course.  Now, with Spell/Grammar Check, and a few helpful programs, almost anyone can produce an error-free document.  (Homonyms not included.  Void where prohibited.)  Sadly, cursive writing seems to be on the decline, and that shows up in the oddest places.  A father recently took his 14-year-old son to get a passport….and the kid couldn’t sign the application.  Bake shops now have to teach new hires, not only how to bake birthday cakes, but how to put “Congratulations” on the top.

Those who don’t have a tablet or cell phone to text on, print.  Direct deposit and on-line banking mean you don’t even have to sign anything.  At least I didn’t have to start with drawing mojo pictures on the cave wall with the burnt end of a branch.  I think that the changes have been for the better.  Do you write, or print, or neither, and with what?

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