Pen Making and Change

Most everyone has heard the story of temperature change and frogs. If you place a frog in tepid water and slowly increase the temperature over time, it will simply be boiled to death without noticing the change. The funny thing is that the “story” in this case is not true scientifically. Apparently, a frog does notice when the temperature of the water changes. Nevertheless, the myth rings true to human experience, so it has been a metaphor that has been repeated thousands of times to illustrate how, in the midst of significant change, humans have a tendency to operate as if the environment remains the same!

I am not sure how the “myth” began, but it may have developed simply as a result of a struggle to find metaphors to describe how humans experience change. Historians effectively describe how cultural changes happen in a society, but we always “see” when the results are relatively clear. Predicting what shifts in cultural practice will have long-term effects is a much more difficult task. Paul the Apostle expressed it nicely when, thinking about God’s work in this world, he noted that we “see” through a glass darkly. We do not see either the present or the future clearly because it is clouded with our own experience and expectations. For many reasons we are risk averse and, I think, we seek continuity and believe that the future will be like the past. 

When we travel I often look for experiences that would enhance my own patterns of life. I am a collector of pens, a hobby that is increasingly for a smaller group of people. When I tell people I collect pens I am most often greeted with curious looks and responses like, “You mean the kind of pins you wear on your lapel? No, you mean writing instruments? I did not know anyone used those any longer.”  

Writing by hand is becoming increasingly a practice of the past. Indeed, as we traveled by train in England I would use the time to write letters and notes to people in the United States. Two men in their thirties sat down across the table from us at one stop, and they looked curiously at me. At one point, one of them finally made a statement to me: “I have not seen anyone write notes since my father did that when I was a child!” I was not sure how to respond. I do not see myself as old, but at 61 I definitely could have been the father of the two businessmen sitting across from us. The practice of writing letters has always been part of my own communication style with family and the broader community. His comment made me think that the world had changed around me and I had barely noticed. 

The irony was that we were traveling to Birmingham to do two things: 1) visit Cadbury World for my wife, who loves chocolate, and 2.) visit a unique pen manufacturer that creates sterling silver pens and pencils. For a culture that has ceased to value “writing” it’s hard to communicate why you collect hand-crafted pens that are tools of a pre-1960 culture. Perhaps it is one of the things I do to hold on to part of my own past, which I value. 

Birmingham was once the center of pen manufacturing in the world. Now there are just a few businesses left that are engaged in this craft, and we were trying to find the main one: Yard O Led. In fact, even though we had the exact address, Google Maps could not help us find their business location. (After an email we later discovered that the location was down an alley and behind a series of doors. It was hard to know how you would actually find it!) What we did stumble upon was the “Pen Museum.”    

Since we could not find our pen shop, the museum seemed like a great replacement, and it was. The Pen Museum provided an interesting learning opportunity and an excellent history of pen manufacturing in Birmingham. The “quill” was the primary writing tool used in Europe for more than 1,000 years. It enabled people who were trained to use it to craft letters and documents with relative ease and beauty. At the same time, it was difficult to maintain and sharpen. In the 1820s, John Mitchell and Jason Mason developed the metal nib which displaced quills in a matter of a few short years. The new metal nibs were less expensive and made the practice of writing easier and more efficient. Mitchell and Mason’s innovation led to a new industry in Birmingham where, eventually, thousands of craftsmen and women were employed in the new craft of penmaking. 

Unlike the quill pen, the new pen industry did not last 1,000 years. In the mid-1930s, Jewish-Hungarian journalist László Bíró needed a writing instrument that he could use in writing about the changes going on in Europe. Because of the dangers ever present with the emergence of the new Fascist powers in Europe, he had to have something that would enable ink to flow but also be transported and stored easily. Bíró invented in 1938 the ballpoint pen which, in a matter of just a few years, completely eliminated the metal nib industry, and it became the new tool of the industrial world. Birmingham’s factories closed and the town, until recently, proved unable to adapt to the post-WWII economic world.  When you travel, there are always opportunities for learning. This was one of them for us. Humans have always lived in times of “change,” but the shifts occurring in our culture are happening more rapidly than at any point in the past. Even our basic methods of communicating with each other – writing – is being displaced by our interaction with machines. I certainly lament the passing of writing and continue to hold on to my own commitment to write letters in an “old” form (and collect pens made by craftsmen). But, no matter how I feel about it, writing is “passing.” Accurately predicting the future is probably not possible, but I was encouraged by Mr. Bíró. He did not set out to revolutionize writing but to solve a problem he had in his own work. The same was true of Mitchell and Mason. The people most successful in creating the future seemed to be those most willing to experiment with the practical problems in front of them. As our educational environment shifts, that would seem to be a good reminder of the successful path to the future. 

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