As a society this days, I think we’re a bit conceited. Surrounded by and immersed in this matrix we have created, we are distanced from the systems with which we regularly interact, and inured or ignorant of the complexity beyond so many of the things that we take for granted. This is not only applicable to physical things and technologies – it applies equally well to social structures, institutions, governments, administrative systems, and so forth – but it is easiest to understand and perceive in the context of technologies. I definitely suffer from this conceit, wherein I start to think that I understand enough about so many different things that I should be able to reverse engineer or recreate just about any system I might encounter, at least on a theoretical level. Whenever I start to think that way, I give myself what I’ve taken to calling “The Pen Conceit Lecture.”

If you were transported back, say, a thousand years, or even a few hundred years, could you recreate a modern, ballpoint pen? Do you know how a ballpoint pen works? The considerations that go into choosing the ink, the material for the tip, how the type of paper available influences the choice of both of those components? How the ink feeds into the nib, or even what the nib is? You can take this as far as you want. How are the plastics that form the pen’s outer casing and the ink’s container made? They’re different types of plastic, so how can those be formed? The cap and the back of the pen are also usually a different type of plastic. What metals are in the tip and the nib? How are the etchings of the channels formed? How do we mine and process those metals from the native ores? How do you identify where those ores can be found?

How many hundreds of years of design evolution have gone into making the modern ballpoint pen? How many different scientists, engineers, inventors, businesspeople, writers, and other people contributed to that evolution? What social factors led to the creation of this type of pen? What are the implications of that type of pen, and of its absence? If the ballpoint pen or a similar technology had never been created, how would it affect the modern world in which we live? Where else have the innovations that went into the ballpoint pen been leveraged? What is the next step in the evolution of the pen? What societal circumstances helped enable the development of ballpoint pen technology?

I always carry two ballpoint pens in my pocket, one black, and one blue. I know that the plastics are derived from oil, which is processed into polymers, and that depending on the exact heating process and the chemical environment different polymers can be attained, but I don’t know those exact processes – even if you gave me a gallon of crude oil, it would take me a lot of experimentation to determine how to turn it into useful plastics. I know that the tip is made of metal, probably steel, but I don’t know the exact type of steel. I could probably manage to create steel if someone gave me some iron ore, but I would be hard-pressed to obtain the iron ore for myself. The very nib of the pen is usually made of or coated in a metal like iridium, which I would struggle to isolate from any number of other metals with a similar appearance. There are channels etched into the iridium to draw the ink from the barrel down to the tip at just the right rate based on the diameter of the channels and the nature of the paper, which require gemstone-tipped machines to do very precise etching. I might be able to make something that could accomplish that, but it would take a very, very long time to make motors to run the machines from scratch, and they wouldn’t be very good or accurate, so they might not work at all. And that’s just the physical pen, not getting into the ink or the paper.

Compared to most of the systems we work with on a daily basis, accepting as completely normal and commonplace, even banal, a pen is a simple thing, and yet it is far more complex than you probably realize, and even with my engineering background and my interest in these matters I would likely be unable to recreate it without modern technology, and even with modern manufacturing technology it would take many iterations to get to a working design without a sample to reference. Next I’ll consider something like a microwave oven, and I will realize just how right Socrates was: the beginning of wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.

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