Post-cataclysm technology: the pencil

After the great climate change cataclysm wipes out our old, familiar supply chains and power sources, we’re going to have to develop new technologies in order to survive. Many of the most effective are likely to be ones that worked well in the past. Take, for example, the humble pencil.

If you’ve never seen one before, look carefully at the image below.

What is a pencil?

You’ll note that the printer, keyboard and undo button are all built into this single shaft. To work it, a person would hold the keyboard portion in their hand and press the printer part of the pencil against a sheet of paper. By carefully manipulating the keyboard, words could be rendered onto the paper. This process was called “writing,” and is seen as a precursor to keyboarding. When a mistake was made, just like on today’s computers, it could be removed through careful application of the undo button, which in those days was called an “eraser.”

There were two types of writing, “print” and “cursive.” They correspond somewhat to our “regular” and “italic” typefaces today. Although it seems redundant, students actually had to learn both forms of writing. This was the source of much pain and anguish in the early school grades. What’s more, to indicate boldface, one had to retrace the same letters over and over again in the exact same space. Underlining was creating by literally drawing a line under the selected words. These lines were often crude and uneven.

Back then, people who did a lot of “writing” didn’t get carpal tunnel syndrome, but this activity was fraught with health risks nonetheless. They often wore hard callouses on the distal interphalangeal joint (upper knuckle) of the ring finger of their writing hand. In fact, school children could identify geeks by the size and hardness of those callouses.

Another device used for writing was a “pen” (Southern variant: inkpen). Then pen was a long, thin tube shaped similarly to a pencil, filled with ink. The pen was manipulated just like the pencil for writing. Strangely, this technology did not include an undo button, which made it extremely challenging to use. Because of this, anthropologists believe the pen was reserved for use by only the most skilled of writers and for only the most important writing tasks, perhaps those with high religious or cultural value.

Back in the pencil and pen days, people commonly communicated with others located some distance away by sending packets of papers with writing on them. These packets were called “letters” (perhaps because the pages were covered with so many of them). The process of sending letters was called “mail.” Some linguists believe that when email was discovered, the letter “e” was simply added to this old word “mail,” standing for “extra” or “ego.” However, this position is extremely controversial, as the word mail means something so completely unrelated to communication: “a delivery device for bills, advertising circulars and glossy brochures from politicians.”

Why learn how to use a pencil now? Because this technology is the post-cataclysm future. When the power cuts out and you’re on the road, the ability to communicate on paper, to send it over long distances and to maintain records will still be important. To do that, we’re going to need to know how to write in this old-fashioned way.

My recommendation is to practice writing now so you’ll be familiar with the technology and have the skill needed to manipulate a pencil with ease. It might help to talk to grandparents and other elders in your community about how they survived these primitive conditions before the computer was invented.


Next week on blog52: How to spot a sociopath at fifty yards.


5 Responses to Post-cataclysm technology: the pencil

  1. Cheryl says:

    Ha! Although, some computers are smaller than coffee mugs now.

  2. blog52 says:

    Uh, not if you include the printer.

  3. […] to write a letter Yesterday’s post explained how an old technology called a “pencil” can be used to help us survive the […]

  4. […] Listen up: Instructions for how to use a “pencil” Here’s the podcast version of Tuesday’s post, Post-cataclysm technology: the pencil. […]

  5. […] a puddle. The terror-stricken look on his face was enough to convince me to stick with paper and pencil for a while […]

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