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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29 thoughts on “Tabula Rasa

  1. 1jaded1 says:

    My first comment was eaten. Thank you for taking us on the word journey from mind to paper (or screen). My favorite non~color was cornflower blue, really? Thanks also for explaining the holes on the right side of the desk. I’m sure the girls were happy not to sit in front of you. *wink*. Laughing at homonyms not included. Did you have fun at your sun’s house? Where are your third degree burns.

    I always use pen. I alternate between printing and cursive. You are correct that cursive is a lost art. My signature has evolved from a line to an X (kidding).

    Like

    • Archon's Den says:

      Don’t panic an old guy like that! I proofread that post eight times. The “sun’s house – burns” thing was a joke….right??! That’s the most exercise I’ve got in two weeks. My heart is still racing. 😉
      My hand is not steady. I like a good fountain pen, but am forced to use a decent ballpoint, not a roller-ball, the few times I need one. 👿

      Like

      • 1jaded1 says:

        It was a joke. Proof positive that computer spell checks do not rule the world. Perfect example, Our team one the game by won point. 😉

        Like

  2. H.E. ELLIS says:

    …written-from-the-wrong-side, Hebrew chicken-scratching…

    I’m willing to bet this will be the funniest thing I read all day.

    I came to the same conclusion you did when it occurred to me that I couldn’t recognize my own children’s handwriting. When I was a kid I was known for being able to copy anyone’s handwriting perfectly, but that was because we all wrote out our school work with pen and paper. My kids use computers for everything in their classrooms.

    As for me, I am old school. I never leave home without a Sharpie because I do the majority of my writing when I am out walking around town. If a thought comes to me and I don’t have paper handy, I will write on my forearm. I am willing to bet 20% of my first book was written on my right forearm (I am left-handed).

    I learned the hard way not to use mechanical pencils.

    Like

    • Archon's Den says:

      A creative writer who’s left-handed, why am I not surprised? What did you do to poor innocent mechanical pencils, and which kind? The new, click, click style, or the old, turn-it-to-wind-it-out kind? Another trip back through writing history takes us from Sharp Electronics, back to the wind-it-out EverSharp Pencil. Quite a product-line change! 😀

      Like

  3. BrainRants says:

    Archon, your history and etymology posts are always most interesting to me. I find it odd that up until about third grade, our scribing means were the same. I’ve used quilled ink pens, but never in a school setting. Also, you can just call Moses, Erickson. We all know he was involved.

    Like

    • Archon's Den says:

      My quills were not allowed at school. They were just a home DIY project because the feathers were available, and I didn’t need them all, to fletch the four-foot arrows I used with the atl-atl throwing stick I built. 😕

      Like

  4. whiteladyinthehood says:

    When I was itty-bitty, to get a coloring book with the “BIG” box of colors was a treat! It had colors like sienna and periwinkle and it came with a built-in crayon sharpener.
    I was trying to follow you on the pen evolution – the closest thing I could come up with was a “calligraphy” pen.
    I can write in cursive and I use an ink pen, but to tell you the truth Archon, I still like a good ole #2 pencil. I have an old-fashioned mounted pencil sharpener. Most pencils made today are shoddy and worthless and a box of 8 count crayolas cost a 1.25 (!)

    Like

    • Archon's Den says:

      Straight pens = calligraphy pens, only, back when everybody used them to record the woolly mammoth inventory. See H E Ellis’ comment about mechanical pencils. I’ve used both types to do crosswords at work, but have fallen back to the trusty No.2 pencil. I have a mugful of good quality, pretty, patterned ones, because Michaels wanted to charge too much, and wound up having to give one away every time I took the wife in for candle-making supplies. I too have a six-hole, wall-mounted sharpener under the basement stairs, where I hide my snacks. 😉

      Like

  5. Jim Wheeler says:

    Good coverage of a good topic, Archon. It brings back memories of my struggles with ink and messy blots in the very early years. Penmanship was central to learning in those days and now that it’s gone, I wonder if we aren’t losing more than a mere skill in the process. I think I may expand on the thought in my own blog. Thanks.

    Like

    • Archon's Den says:

      I read a sci-fi story where no-one could do math, because the machines did it all….then came the power failure. Several of my remember-when stories question the loss of something that most people regard as ancient and un-necessary. I just hope that remains true. 😦

      Like

      • Jim Wheeler says:

        I too recall stories where the power went off, a not uncommon theme in the halcyon days of S-F. But, I think the ubiquity of calculators and computing power deprives the mind of being able to properly test numbers. Who hasn’t heard people saying “million” when they mean “billion”, or vice versa? Or even “thousand” when they mean “million”? And then there’s fractions and fraction-to-digital conversion, something important to statistics and all manner of other things. Unless one makes that effort, one is left to the mercy of the calculator and to wonder if the inputs were right.

        Like

  6. […] I was prompted to write on this subject by the musings of my Canadian blogging colleague at Archon’s Den.  He provides an entertaining view of it at this link. […]

    Like

    • Archon's Den says:

      Thanx for the link Jim. You said a while ago that you weren’t posting, but just reading and commenting on others, so I haven’t visited in a while. I must go see what I’ve inspired you to post about this subject. 🙂

      Like

  7. PiedType says:

    Sounds like you and I are from the same era and have lived through the same transitions. I still remember what a thrill it was when, in 6th grade, we all got our first fountain pens. We were finally grown up enough to write with grown-up implements! (Mine was canary yellow.) And weren’t those cartridges a blessing! I don’t recall having actual inkwells in my desks, however; perhaps you have a couple of years on me.

    Like

    • Archon's Den says:

      I have a couple of years on just about everybody except the esteemed Mr. Jim Wheeler. I am soon to turn 69. My writing with fountain pens was near illegible. I did much better with ball-points, and praised their introduction.
      I used to see you at Izaak Mak’s Iwanticewater, but haven’t visited for a while. Thanx for visiting my site. Feel free to return anytime. 😀

      Like

  8. Kayjai says:

    Yep…son was directed by teachers NOT to print…he is sooo bad at it. He learned cursive writing, but he finds it quite difficult. He can write and sign his name but it’s painful to watch! Shocking, really. My daughters shake their heads at him…cursive writing is still taught in schools here, but not sure where else. I’m thankful for that!

    Like

    • Archon's Den says:

      The wife has beautiful, boilerplate cursive writing. Her signature is a thing of beauty….if she gets enough room to place it. I fear the son has inherited my syndrome. Not as shaky as me (yet), but his writing is even more illegible, think an ant, on meth. His Grade Two teacher strongly suggested a tape recorder and a typewriter. Nice to know that some schools, somewhere, are still actually teaching useful subjects. 🙂

      Like

  9. aFrankAngle says:

    Interestingly, I didn’t get into writing for pleasure until I started blogging! And yes …. when I travel, I take a notebook along for writing.

    Like

    • Archon's Den says:

      It’s a shortcoming of the language when the word “writing” means both scribing, and composing. I have composed all my life, while my scribing ability continues to deteriorate. I’m all for the new technology, but feel we should retain at least a modicum of the old abilities; that’s why previous posts have been about the wife and daughter making pickles and jams, knitting, spinning yarn and making lace and candles. Our Mennonite neighbors will survive the Apocalypse. 😉

      Like

  10. Somehow penmanship and arithmetic seem to have fallen off the list of subjects taught in school now. I remember most of the writting implements you mention. I don’t do much writing anymore, my hands shake too much for it to be legible.

    Like

  11. Sightsnbytes says:

    I learned to type on an old Sears & Roebuck typewriter my uncle picked out of the trash. I then went on do a business course where our instructor used to tie blindfolds on us and get us to touch type to her dictation. I used to type over 60 words per minute, but since moving from typewriters to computers, I tend to type very hard, thus ruining the keyboard. My lady says that she can hear me type all through the house, and that it really shouldn’t be called typing, but rather, mashing. I never use spell check. Well almost never. On one occasion, I was writing my Member of Parliament, Judy Foote, and damn auto-correct changed her name to ‘Judy’s Feet’. I almost sent it without looking at it first. Great post,,again!

    Like

  12. Archon's Den says:

    There’s a change I forgot about, from the old, Bang-it-as-hard-as-you-can manuals, to the tippy-tap electronics. The son learned on electrics, and still has the big, solidly-built keyboard that fits his big hands, from our first, Tandy/Radio Shack computer of 25 years ago. Recently had to go to Future Shop, to get a 15-pin in/16-pin out adaptor, so that it would run his new computer. You gotta stop bangin’ on, and ruinin’ those keyboards. When I started formatting my posts in Word, the SpellCheck worked automatically. When I moved them to WordPress, I had to click on their Spelling program, just for double check. Recently there must have been an upgrade, because drafts, and comments are now automatically checked and highlighted. I must have a look at Judy’s feet! 😀

    Like

  13. benzeknees says:

    I prefer to type or word process to writing, simply because it’s more comfortable for me. When I have to write I use a gel pen because I like the way the ink looks on the page & I like to use bright colors. I guess I never grew past the crayon stage!

    Like

    • Archon's Den says:

      Yay keyboards! I’m not much past the crayon stage myself. I hold firm, and press hard, any writing instrument. I’ve bent pen nibs, and must use at least medium ballpoints, or it’s like a chisel, carving into the paper. Your “Likes” show the dog, but your comments are accompanied by a red geometric mandala. 😕

      Like

      • benzeknees says:

        I don’t understand this myself about my avatar. I have my settings set so it is supposed to be the dog all the time – & on some blogs it works like this. On a lot of others I get a “generic” avatar. I don’t like it at all!

        Like

  14. benzeknees says:

    Just so you know, from my point of view, it shows the dog on both.

    Like

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