How often is that, you ask, in this Age of the Touchscreen? Often enough, I answer. I still keep a journal: sometimes for journalish scribbling, oftentimes for brainstorming my way into whatever bit of fiction on which I happen to be focused. I write in my journal with retractable ball point pens.
For a while I had a fetish for a pen I got as a gift from family friends in Japan. Boy, was that a problem. Not the pen. I loved the pen. I didn't want to write anything in any way significant with any other instrument. But. I couldn't find refills to save my life. I had to ration my use of the thing. Naturally, therefore, when my late father and his wife traveled to Tokyo I gave them the relevant info and begged them to search for refills there. Family legend, of the How I Spent My Overseas Vacation variety, was born: repeated tellings of how a different, bewildered family friend drove the two of them across town in Tokyo traffic to some Costco-sized office supply store, in order to buy a half-dozen pen refills for yours truly.
I weaned myself from that fetish-pen with the Zebra F-402, which is considerably easier to refurbish, replicate, and replace. Local stores here in Berkeley carry them. You can buy the Zebra F-402 by the dozen on Amazon. Refills too.
But that's not what I meant to write about. What I mean to write about was ratchet springs. There are ratchet springs in a Zebra F-402, in that Japanese pen for which my father and his wife played refill courier, and in pretty much any other retractable ball point.
What's a ratchet spring, you ask? From eHow's How a Retractable Ballpoint Pen Works, by Thomas McNish:
On the inside of the pen, there are a couple springs that allow the pen to retract. The first spring (ratchet spring) is located inside the bottom half of the barrel (where the tip comes out). The reservoir is put through this spring before it's put through the open end of the barrel. On the other side of the reservoir, there's a spring that's located inside the upper half of the barrel. This spring (the button spring) is connected to a screw and a clip, which are then connected to the button at the end of the pen. When you press this button, it presses down on the button spring, which then forces the reservoir out through the pen. A locking mechanism consisting of tiny pits and teeth interlock with each other to keep the reservoir out of the pen when it's needed for writing, and when it's retracted back into the barrel, they unlock and the reservoir is sprung back inside by the ratchet spring.
This ritual filled and fills me with incredulous wonder and no little dismay each time I perform it (as I did last week, matter of fact, when my Zebra F-402 ran dry in mid-journal-entry). What in this ritual, particularly, filled and fills me with incredulous wonder? Why, the marvel of engineering that is the spiral of springy steel known as a ratchet spring, natch ... a marvel I am, as a compliant consumer of consumer products in these United States of 'Merica, meant to pack off to the local landfill without a second thought.
I can't bear to throw the things away, see. Not that I have any clear idea how to reuse these wiry marvels of engineering. I'm not a hoarder. Really, I'm not. But ...
Imagine yourself living in the forest, wearing animal skins you scraped clean with a flint blade, rubbing sticks together when you need to start a fire. If, in such a state, you were to discover an urgent need for a well-tempered, evenly wound, durably flexible steel spring ... how the heck would you go about making one?
Q.E.D. How could anyone carelessly throw away such an elegant artifact of advanced technology? To that question, I have no answer.
When I first described to my partner the reluctance I feel at the prospect of discarding ratchet springs when I reload a retractable ballpoint pen, he stared at me like I was crazy.
"People throw them away?" he asked.
Come to think of it, those refills my father and his wife brought back, triumphantly, from the Far East sometime before the turn of this century -- to augment the few Pentel XBXS7-A refills our friends supplied with their original gift, which are now available, like every other purchasable thing, from Japan via Amazon -- they didn't come with springs either. See photos, above and at left.
There are, according to the CIA World Factbook, 1,476,838,913 people who live in China and Japan (combined population, July 2013 estimate). That's almost one and a half billion people who, if they use retractable ballpoint pens, and refill them when they go dry, save and reuse ratchet springs. A billion and a half individuals who reuse 'em ... or lose 'em.
Knowing that, I'll never again feel alone when I refill a Zebra F-402 and carefully, nay, lovingly warehouse its marvelous wiry spiral of a ratchet spring in a box I keep in the drawer of my desk.
Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Should technology shape art?
Elegy for a manual transmission
Rock, Paper, Digital Preservation
It’s new, but is it improved?
Three of the four photos included in this post are the first three photos I captured with my brand new iPad Mini. That proves I'm not a Luddite, right?