Cursive may be fading as a course in school, but people still do a lot of writing by hand. And when they do they’re likely to use something they give little thought to but that changed how people communicate: the ballpoint pen.
This week marked the 117th birthday of László József Bíró, who invented of the first commercially successful modern ballpoint pen, and patented it in 1938 (in some countries and certain languages, Biro’s name has become the term for a ballpoint pen: the word biro is an eponym, meaning a word that has been a proper noun that signifies all instances of a thing that it represents – think also of Kleenex or Xerox, for example). In 1945, Bíró sold the patent to a Marcel Bich, and the ballpoint pen soon became the main product of his Bic company.
The main advantage of a ballpoint pen or biro is that you don’t need to refill it constantly, as you do with a fountain pen (which itself was a long way from the reed pens and quill pens that needed to be dipped often in ink), and it’s more portable than pens that rely on inkwells. The ballpoint pen made writing and, in its way, communicating, much, much easier. A hastily scribbled note or card was something you could do without having to search for an inkwell, and you didn’t have to wait for the ink to dry.
This seems insignificant today, when we text and type and expect instant responses. But it’s important to be aware of how we got to where we are, no matter the context. Computing and word processing are taken for granted, but it wasn’t too long ago that typing itself was considered the height of efficiency, that not cellphones were unheard of, that so-called snail mail was how people corresponded. We quickly forget how difficult things used to be, as technology changes thanks to the imaginative leaps taken by forward-thinking inventors, engineers and entrepreneurs, and so we look for new ways to be annoyed by inefficiencies. Until someone else sees a problem to solve, solves it and makes life a little easier.
So here’s to the small actions with significant outcomes, undertaken by people with the imagination and drive to look for solutions.[rps]