It happened today - October 5, 2015
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B24gIWoecOo Remember those “Write on, brother” ads for the Write Bros. 19 cent ballpoint pen? Or do I date myself, especially as I go on to stammer that it was something called an “advertisement” on a thing called “television”? Anyway, a reliable, long-lasting pen for less than a fifth of a dollar is a remarkable thing, though hardly an elegant one. And it dates back to 1880, when the first ballpoint pen was patented by Alonzo T. Cross.
A lot of useful things got invented in the late 19th century. It was that kind of time, and also one thing that got invented was the mass production of quality steel and hence of cheap quality steel. From bicycles to ballpoints to railway rails, it helps to have this super-versatile, hard metal that can be shaped very precisely and relied on to keep its shape. And the ballpoint was of course invented in the United States, long the focal point of modernity as of conservatism.
For all that, I have to say that the ballpoint pen is an inelegant tool for an inelegant age. I myself used a fountain pen from early in high school until my professional life took me on too many airplanes and I discovered the vibrations of this convenient and remarkably cheap but, again, inelegant form of travel tended to cause significant leakage. If it didn’t get ink on my shirt in flight, the next time I used it, it sure got ink all over my fingers.
This lament has nothing to do with calligraphy. My handwriting is so bad my printing is barely legible. But while I appreciate Mr. Cross putting cheap pens in the hands of students and businesspeople around the world, I do rather miss the elegance of dipping a pen then dusting the product with sand before sending it.
In contrast with email and tweets, especially given the cost of postage, it forced you to consider whether you had expressed yourself properly, including in the arcane field of actually spelling things right, and whether whatever you’d said was worth saying and whether it needed quite so many obscenities.
So yes, I have ballpoint pens on my desk. You can’t avoid them nowadays. But I never use one with pleasure, as I did with my old fountain pens, and that’s not an unqualified victory for modernity.