Missing the point

Michael Raffety


My grandmother wrote everything with a fountain pen. I’m pretty sure my grandpa did also, since as a justice of the peace he would have to log his decisions or sign marriage certificates. Though I visited his basement office and occasionally he let me sit in on a case I didn’t noticed his fountain penmanship so much as his ability to hit the spittoon farther down the long oak table that was his judicial bench.

It was my grandmother who wrote to her grandchildren. I recognized her neat penmanship on the back of photos of my mother as a young child and then teenager. She would note the names of people in the photo, taken with my grandfather’s Kodak Junior, and note my mother’s age and the two younger daughters’ ages at the time the photo was taken.

Neither my mother nor myself have managed to equal that allegiance to labeling family photographs, though I have improved immensely since joining Facebook.

My mother gave me that fountain pen, which I gave to Snowline. I would never use a fountain pen. It’s too easy to make blotches and blobs on the paper and you have to have the right kind of ink blotter.

I couldn’t imagine trying to make notes of a meeting as a reporter with a fountain pen. A person would wind up with ink on their hands and their clothes and it’s pretty hard to get fountain pen ink out of a shirt. Ballpoint pens are the only way to go.

Pencils are no substitute. The only time I used pencils was for making the department budgets on a green spreadsheet before we got computers and spreadsheet programs.

In a Wall Street Journal column Jan. 18 by David Feith, who is a Journal editorial writer based in Hong Kong, I learned that the Chinese don’t know how to make ballpoint pens, which are ubiquitous in the Western world.

The ballpoint pen was invented in 1931 and commercialized in the 1940s, according to Feith, and yet the Chinese have to import the points in order to manufacture ballpoint pens. The ballpoint pen you are using today was probably made in China, but the point was imported from the U.S.

Feith noted that China makes 80 percent of the world’s ballpoint pens, “some 38 billion,” but 90 percent depend on imported points.

Why does China not make the points for ballpoint pens? My guess is because they are accustomed to using brushes or gel-filled Kanji pens to write Kanji, which are the logogrqphic symbols used by China and Japan. Japanese elementary students must learn 1,000 Kanji characters. Even fountain pens are used to make Kanji characters.

The point of Feith’s column was that the Chinese are determined to make their own points for ballpoint pens. It took funding from the Ministry of Science and Technology for a state enterprise called the Taiyuan Iron and Steel Group master points for ballpoints. Feith wrote that the state media referred to this as a “breakthough.”

And that’s the trouble with China. So much of its economy is based on state-owned corporations, businesses and conglomerates. They have to have state funding to achieve any “breakthroughs” and financially prop up losing businesses.

By contrast, Western society advances through the enterprise and inventiveness of individuals and private companies. Practical ballpoint pens came about because of a Hungarian newspaper editor named Lazlo Biro who became frustrated with ink smudges and constantly having to fill up fountain pens. He noticed that newspaper ink dried faster than fountain pen ink. With his brother Gyorgy, a chemist, they developed the ink formula that made ballpoint pens successful and filed a British patent in 1938.

When the Biro brothers and friend Juan Jorge Meyne fled Germany for Argentina in 1941 they formed a ballpoint pen company and their pens are still known as Biro and Meyne in Argentina.

Their new design was licensed by the British government, which produced them for RAF pilots during WWII because fountain pens were a leaking horror to use at high altitudes.

Improvements led to U.S. patents for Papermate, Parker pens and the ultimate cheap pen, the Bic, which wound up in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

China is one big government monstrosity that gets in the way of innovation. I also note the cultural difference between writing Kanji characters with a brush compared to writing based on an alphabet that began with the Greeks and was expanded by the Romans.

It took Taiyuan Iron & Steel five years to figure out how to make ballpoint pen tips, according to Feith. That Chinese company produces 10 million tons of steel annually, adding to China’s glut of steel flooding the world markets.


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