Evolution in Everything: Handwriting

There’s a whole set of simple but profound lessons that, if I were being lazy, I might call “the economic way of thinking.” We move through a hand-me-down world, solving some problems and creating new problems, adjusting and adapting, and shaping the world that we pass on to the next generation.

I just stumbled on a lovely example in an article about ballpoint pens and the end of cursive. A technological change changed the nature of handwriting, but the structure of human capital lagged behind. Specifically, the widespread adoption of ballpoint pens meant the old way of writing–how to hold the pen, how to form the letters, etc.–was poorly suited to the tool being used. This should have been an opportunity to test unchecked assumptions (e.g. about what the “correct” way to write is) but instead an inefficient practice (cursive writing with a bic pen) persisted in the face of increasing obsolescence.

I particularly like the idea of trying something new (fountain pens) can lead to a realization that some old method has a lot more going for it than was obvious to the non-alert.

I wonder how many other mundane skills, shaped to accommodate outmoded objects, persist beyond their utility. It’s not news to anyone that students used to write with fountain pens, but knowing this isn’t the same as the tactile experience of writing with one. Without that experience, it’s easy to continue past practice without stopping to notice that the action no longer fits the tool. Perhaps “saving handwriting” is less a matter of invoking blind nostalgia and more a process of examining the historical use of ordinary technologies as a way to understand contemporary ones. Otherwise we may not realize which habits are worth passing on, and which are vestiges of circumstances long since past.

How the Ballpoint Pen Killed Cursive

Learning takes time. So in a dynamic society, it’s natural that there will always be some sort of practice outliving its utility. The only other way I see is stagnation: no new methods, no new problems, and we eventually setting into a “making the best of it” equilibrium.

The discovery of each of these inefficiencies creates some pocket of entrepreneurship. Sometimes it’s a massive, market oriented bit of entrepreneurship–like Bic industrializing the process of making cheap, reliable pens. Sometimes it’s a niche community of hobbyists (who might be incubating the next big thing). But that entrepreneurial reaction to inefficiency is pretty exciting. Realizing how my bad handwriting is the outcome of a technical problem makes me want to try fountain pens.

Inventions that didn’t change the world

Have you ever learned about an amazing invention–whether it was the Baghdad battery or the ancient Roman steam engine or Chinese firecrackers–and wondered why it didn’t do more to change the world? In this podcast, we examine a selection of curiosities and explore hypotheses for why their inventors didn’t use them to full effect.

We move VERY quickly through a range of fascinating examples and hypotheses, and therefore leave a lot up to discussion. We hope to see your thoughts, feedback, and additions in the comments section!

For any invention that you want to learn more about, see the links below:

Knossos’ toilets

In the 2nd millennium BC, a “palace” (now thought to be a building that served as administrative, trade, and gathering hub) had running-water toilet flushing. Much like the Roman Cloaca Maxima, likely a HUGE public-health benefit, but basically died out. Does this show that military protection/staving off the “Dark Ages” was the only way to maintain amazing inventions?

Link: http://www.nature.com/news/the-secret-history-of-ancient-toilets-1.19960;

The Nimrud lens

Whether it was a fire-starter, a magnifying glass, or (for some overeager astronomy enthusaists), the Neo-Assyrian ground-crystal Nimrud lens is an invention thousands of years out of place. While the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans all used lenses of different sorts, and glass-blowing was certainly popular by the 1st century BC in Roman Egypt, no glass lenses were made until the Middle Ages and the potential scientific and engineering uses of lenses–that can hardly be understated even in their 16th-to-18th-century applications–had to wait another couple millennia. Many devices like the Baghdad battery and Antikythera device are heralded for their possible engineering genius, but this seems like a simple one with readily available applications that disappeared from the historical record.


Hero of Alexandria’s steam engine

In the 1st century AD, Hero was a master of simple machines (that were mostly used for plays) and also invented a force pump, a wind-powered machine, even an early vending machine. However, he is likely most famous for his Aeolipile, a rotating steam engine that used heated water to spin an axle. The best attested use of this is for devotion to the divine and party tricks.


The ancient mechanical reaper

Ancient Gallo-Romans (or just Gauls) invented a novel way of grain harvesting: rather than using sickles or scythes, they used a mechanical reaper, 1700 years before Cyrus McCormick more than tripled the productivity of American farmers. This antiquated device literally but the cart before the oxen and required two men to operate: one man to drive the beasts, and another to knock the ears off the stalk (this reaper was obviously far less sophisticated than McCormick’s). This invention did not survive the Volkswanderung period.



Note: the horse collar (which allowed horses to be used to plow) was invented in 1600-1400 BC in China AND the Levant, but was not applied widely until 1000 AD in Europe. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horse_collar.


Madhav, an Indian doctor, compiled hundreds of cures in his Nidana, including an inoculation against smallpox that showed an understanding of disease transmission (he would take year-old smallpox-infected flesh and touch it to a recently made cutaneous wound). However, the next 13 centuries did not see Indian medical understanding of viruses or bacteria, or even copied techniques of this, development. https://books.google.com/books?id=Hkc3QnbagK4C&pg=PA105&lpg=PA105&dq=madhav+indian+smallpox+inoculation&source=bl&ots=4RFPuvbf5Y&sig=iyDaNUs4u5N7xHH6-pvlbAY9fcQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwic8e-1-JXVAhUp6IMKHfw3DLsQ6AEIOjAD#v=onepage&q=madhav%20indian%20smallpox%20inoculation&f=false

At least, thank god, their methods of giving nose jobs to those who had had their noses cut off as a punishment survived: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_rhinoplasty

The Chinese:

List of all chinese inventions:



Gunpowder was discovered by Chinese alchemists attempting to discover the elixir of life (irony, no?)



(maybe a good corollary would be Greek fire, which was used effectively in naval warfare by the Byzantines, but which was not improved upon and the recipe of which is still secret: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_fire)


The Chinese invented the printing press possibly as early as the 6th century. However, unlike the explosion of literacy seen in much of Europe (particularly Protestant Europe–see our last podcast), the Chinese masses never learned to read. In fact, in 1950 fewer than 20% of Chinese citizens were literate. Compare this to Europe, where some societies saw literacy rates of as high as 90% (Sweden, Male population) in some societies within a few centuries of the introduction of the printing press. Why? There may be several reasons–cultural, religious, political–but in our opinion, it would have to be the characters: 100,000 blocks were needed to create a single set.



They also invented pulped paper by the 2nd century BC: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Chinese_inventions.

The compass

Invented by 200 BC for divination and used for navigation by the Song dynasty; despite this and the availability of easily colonizable islands within easy sailing distance, the Chinese did not colonize Indonesia, Polynesia, or Oceania, while the Europeans did within the century after they developed the technology and first sailed there.


The rudder

While they did not invent the rudder, they invented the “medial, axial, and vertical” sternpost rudder that would become standard in Europe almost 1,000 years before it was used in Europe (1st century AD vs 11th century).

Natural gas

The Chinese discovered “fire wells” (natural gas near the surface) and erected shrines to worship there.


They even understood their potential for fuel, but never developed beyond primitive burning and bamboo piping despite having advanced mining techniques for it by the 1st century BC.

Chinese miscelleni:

Hydraulic powered fan: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fan_(machine)#History

Cuppola furnace for smelting and molding iron: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cupola_furnace.

Coke as a fuel source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coke_(fuel).

Belt-drive spinning wheel: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coke_(fuel).

The Precolumbian wheel

The pre- and early Mayans had toys that utilized primitive wheels, but did not use them for any labor-saving purpose (even their gods were depicted carrying loads on their backs). This may have been because scaling up met with mechanical difficulties, but the potential utility of wheels in this case with a bit of investment literally sat unrealized for centuries.


The Tucker:


The following book contained some of our hypotheses:



The rest of our hypotheses were amalgamated from our disparate classes in economics and history, but none of them are our own or uncommon in academic circles. Thanks for listening!