Thursday, 26 April 2012

Elephant No. 207: Ballpoint Pen

Yes, today I decided to make an elephant with a lowly ballpoint pen. Having long ago switched to rollerball pens, I hardly ever use ballpoints anymore, although I used to love them for doodling. I also, along with my sister, have a sneaking fondness for the way ballpoint pens dig into cheap paper and make it ripple.

The first patent for a ballpoint pen was issued in October 1888 to a leather tanner named John Loud, who wanted to make something that could write on his leather products. His early version featured a small steel ball that rotated inside a socket. Although Loud's invention worked well on a surface such as leather, it was too rough for writing on paper.

For the next few decades, several inventors tried to create ballpoint pens of various types, but the ink was either too thick to flow evenly past the ball, or the ball was too loose, allowing ink to leak out.

It wasn't until the late 1930s that Hungarian newspaper editor László Bíró and his brother George, a chemist, managed to figure out how to produce a pen with a tiny, free-moving ball that was able to pick up ink from an ink cartridge and leave it evenly on paper.

The brothers filed a British patent in June 1938, but by 1941 they had moved to Argentina, where they filed another patent and formed a company called Bíró Pens of Argentina. Their first pen was sold under the brand name "Birome", which is what ballpoint pens are still called in that country.

The design was licensed by the British, who produced ballpoint pens called "biros" for RAF aircrews. This was a practical decision as much as anything: fountain pens were prone to leak at high altitudes because of the lower air pressures, whereas ballpoint pens weren't. Ballpoint pens accordingly became known as "biros" in the United Kingdom, which is what most people in Britain still call them today.

Tip of typical ballpoint pen.

In the United States, ballpoint pens didn't make their official debut until 1945, when the "Reynolds Rocket"—something of an unlicensed rip-off of the original Bíró pen—went on sale at Gimbels department store in New York City. The price was an astonishing $9.75 for a single pen.

Today, in addition to spring-loaded retractable ballpoint pens, plain stick ballpoint pens, and refillable ballpoint pens, we also have "space pens" developed by the Fisher Space Pen Company in the United States. Space pens have a thicker ink, with a gas-pressured piston that forces ink towards the point, allowing the pen to write even in zero gravity. Because a normal ballpoint pen relies on gravity to make the ink flow towards the tip, the little piston is necessary. This is why most ballpoint pens are useless when writing on a vertical surface, or upside-down.

Space Pen mechanism.

Because of their low cost and wide availability, ballpoint pens remain the most widely used type of pen in the world. Most estimates put the number of ballpoint pens manufactured and sold each year as somewhere between 1.5 and 3 billion.

Zebra by Sarah Esteje, drawn with ballpoint pen.

As an art medium, people use ballpoint pens for everything from "ballpoint tattoos" which involve simply drawing on oneself, to elaborate drawings. A whole sub-genre of art exists dedicated to various artistic techniques involving ballpoint pens, some of which involve interesting chemicals. Too interesting, perhaps, for me to try in my current exhausted condition, so I thought I'd just draw something, using the pen in as artistically as I could. Doodling was a tempting option, but I decided I'd at least try to produce something realistic.

For today's elephant, I figured it would be best to draw from a photograph, and since I rarely draw elephants from behind, I decided on this:

African savanna elephant.

For my pen, I used this Pilot-brand blue ballpoint with a medium 1-mm point. The ink in these flows nicely, and I figured that the larger point would allow me to create a more artistic effect. If indeed I was capable of making an artistic ballpoint drawing, which was something I was pretty unsure of when I started. For paper, I just used a piece of 24-lb. bond paper.

I must have some remnant of elementary-school fear about committing pen to paper because, for me, ballpoint pen is ingrained as something you can't erase without digging a hole through your paper. I don't think I'm quite over the notion that I need to be able to erase whatever I draw. This made me quite reluctant to even begin sketching the elephant. I actually toyed with the idea of outlining something in pencil first, which is obviously ridiculous.

Eventually I bit the bullet and lightly sketched the outlines and some of the shading. I fear that I'm never going to be someone who boldly draws or sketches anything.

Since that looked okay to me, I added more shading, and some sharper outlines.

Now that I felt I was getting the hang of drawing more than a doodle with a blue ballpoint pen, I continued adding shading with light strokes of the pen, along with some sharper lines for wrinkles and so forth.

This took me about 45 minutes, although I'm sure I could have spent hours on it if I'd wanted. Maybe the next time I try this technique I'll go for really dark areas, but for now this makes me pretty happy. And I think it may just have broken my phobia about drawing with ballpoint pen.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In yesterday's blog, I wrote about the recent discovery that African elephants are two different species: savanna elephants, and forest elephants. Sadly, it appears that many forest elephants are so fearful of traffic along the roads running through their territory that they would rather starve than venture across the tarmac.

A 2008 study by the Wildlife Conservation Society and Save the Elephants discovered that many forest elephants cannot bring themselves to cross roads, even if there is a food source on the other side. Apparently, it is isn't the vehicles they fear, as much as the poachers that travel the roads.

Researchers used GPS to track 28 elephants in six areas of Gabon and the Republic of Congo over a period of time. Only one elephant was brave enough to cross a road at all—and when it did, it ran at 14 times its normal speed.

Many countries in Asia are working to develop multinational elephant corridors to reduce conflict between elephants and people, and to avoid cutting elephants off from much-needed sources of food, minerals and water. Although similar corridors have been proposed in southern Africa, the forest elephants of central Africa remain at risk, essentially trapped inside ever-shrinking patches of jungle.

I guess the answer to a riddle like "Why did the elephant cross the road?" is sometimes simply: "It didn't."

Forest elephant with elephant bones, Central Africa.
Photo: Wildlife Conservation Society

No comments:

Post a Comment