Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Consider the ratchet spring of a retractable ballpoint pen

It started in high school, this incredulous wonder I feel every time the ink runs dry in one of my retractable ball point pens.

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.

I favor the Zebra F-402 these days, and have for several years. Black ink. 0.7 mm fine point.

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.
A ratchet spring, then, is the spring that comes speared onto the business end of just about every retractable ballpoint pen refill for sale in the United States of 'Merica. When the ink reservoir goes dry, you need only replace it with a refill, discarding the empty innards of the pen. Including 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.

To landfill?

That's wrong. That is gravely wrong. And I have known in my heart of hearts that it is wrong for the better part of four decades, since I was a wee lad: hormonal, yes, but morally certain. Hence the collection (partial) of ratchet springs pictured above, springs I've harvested over the years from empty ink reservoirs of retractable ballpoint pens.

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?

Answer: fughedaboutit.

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.

Not in China, from whence Matthew hails. No siree Bob. In China, I now understand, at least in the China of the 1980s when Matthew was growing up there, one saved the ratchet spring from a retractable ballpoint pen and reused it when inserting a new retractable ballpoint pen refill. New retractable ballpoint pen refills did NOT come with a new spring. You had no choice, really. In China, you saved and reused the ratchet spring, or your retractable ballpoint pen would no longer retract.

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?


  1. Makes sense to me!

    I came across this blog while googling (?) where to purchase those very springs! You can't. Buy them that is unless you go to the dollar store and buy a bunch of cheap ballpoint pens. But then I have the reverse of your topic. What do I do with the now useless, but still new, albeit cheap, pens each with a full load of ink?

    Wanna trade?

    Seriously, I am looking for just the springs. I want to put a couple of them on the ends of my charger cables - cell phone, tablets, headphones, cameras, etc.

    This will supposedly keep the fine wires from breaking from repeated bending, folding and mutilating.

    Would you be interested in selling me some of your collection or has it become a part of you?

    1. @Katherine Dorman -- Well that's a request I didn't see coming. I'm not sure I get how springs (which bend) would help to keep the ends of your charger cables from bending. Seems to me you'd want a stiffer collar (maybe a short length of the outer casing of a cheap ballpoint pen with the ink reservoir removed!). Or even a bit of the Universal Fixit Solution, a.k.a. duct tape: wrapped (perhaps around a splint fashioned from the end of a popsicle stick?) to discourage the cords from bending at the junction of wire with plug/adapter.

  2. Steve,
    Here's another one you didn't see coming. I also would like to purchase these ratchet springs. I build guitars- the springs are perfect for pickup height adjusting screws.

    I doubt however, that your personal stash will be enough for my production plans. I just do not like the prices I'm seeing for these items from the suppliers- huge mark-ups in my opinion.

    If you discover a source for these coveted ratchet springs for say, less than $.20 ea- I'd like to know who it is.

    1. You're right, Anonymous, didn't see that one either. I'm surprised (and tickled, actually) to see this unexpected interest in something I thought was an idiosyncratic fascination. Wouldn't have thunk it.

      No, my personal stash wouldn't go very far in a production-plan direction.....

  3. I was looking for information about ratchet springs. It wasn't here.