What we once carried in our pockets

Long before PDAs and iPods, knowledge workers carried cool personal tools in their pockets. A century and a half ago, English nouveau riche toted “traveler’s compendiums” — small shawgreen cases with protractor, scale ruler, railroad pen and pencil– in their vest pockets when they rode the newfangled trains. Part practical, part status, they were as much a statement as a useful tool.

Jump ahead, and in the 1950s, the essential tool was a fountain pen, typically a Parker, or a Shaeffer. And just like the compendia of the last century, their functionality included no small measure of status. For example, in the 1950s, the Parker 51 Aerometric was the inseparable pocket-pal of jet-flying sophisticates, as unlike other pens, it did not leak with the pressure change. But even non-flyers carried the pen as a powerful statement of their cutting-edge coolness.

Now, whenever an artifact becomes the object of our obsession, the artifact inevitably undergoes a massive species radiation into myriad specialized forms. Just as the iPod is mutating into many shapes and sizes, back then Pens took on seemingly endless tasks and functions.

My favorite pen from the era isn’t even a pen. It is a holy water dispenser carried by Roman Catholic Priests, complete with a tiny chalice where the nib normally would be! Instead of sucking up ink with the internal bladder, the priest would dip it in the holy water font back at the church, collect a bit of the spiritual fluid, and thus be ready at a moments notice to sprinkle bit of holy water whenever the occasion demanded.

The fate of fountain pens tells us where pocket music players are headed. Of course fountain pens are curiosities today, carried only by retro-hobbyists, and holy water pens are a thing of history. Sooner than we realize, iPods will seem equally ancient and obscure curiosities…