The Technology of the Pencil

Pencils from Around the World - Collection and Photograph by Lorelle VanFossen - Lorelle in the Past Lane.

One of my students asked me to define technology. After a few moments of thought, I held up a pencil.

“This is technology.”

She laughed.

I teach web technologies for web publishing, design, and development. I specialize in WordPress, blogging, and social media. I’m a techno junkie of the highest order. My students wish to follow my path, but I’m already several decades ahead of them. To her, a pencil was “old school,” not like computers and driver-less cars run by computers.

“Before the pencil, humans carved words in stone, wood, plants. They used ink on quills of feather, metal, and wood. It was hard work and messy. The pencil, and the pen, revolutionized the world. It gave people a way to communicate and preserve their thoughts and ideas more efficiently. It democratized knowledge.” She stared at me. She should have known the answer to the question would come with a history lesson. “The pen and pencil allowed anyone, no matter their class, income level, or education level, to write. It brought literacy to the world.”

“But it’s not technology.”

“What’s your definition of technology then?”

“Machines that improve our life.”

“That’s right, but be more specific. The definition of technology is anything that improves our way of life. It could be the pen and pencil, the wheel, the dishwasher, the computer, or the space flight.”

As I work on this site, I keep hearing her voice in my head. “But it’s not technology.”

The goal of this site is to talk about technology for the modern genealogist. Sometimes I feel like I should defend myself when I offer tips and techniques for genealogical research that involves pen, pencil, and paper, with no computerized gadgets or bells and whistles to impress. Yet these are technology. So are the gadgets. They all improve not only our way of life but our family history research.

Recently, Archeology Magazine reported on research by Washington State University on the inequality of human societies. They studied the economy between 9000 BC and AD 1500 to measure the disparity of the income gap between rich and poor. They found that economic division grew as society became more technological. As people became more industrious, turning beasts into instruments of agriculture, allowing farmers to increase the area of land they cultivated for food, thus increased food production. The agricultural industry developed, feeding people beyond what a person could grow themselves. Before, if you wanted to survive, you did it yourself. Everyone was basically equal. Technology, even the use of animals, changed lives, improving it for some, but not always all.

I will never forget the day when my father announced that his shipyard engineering staff were about to receive their first computers. They would finally be able to work on their drawings and plans on their computers. Like a kid, he was so excited. We had a Commodore computer which everyone shared (5 kids and two adults), but this was a “real” computer. It promised easier working conditions, project management, and faster production times.

A couple months later, he came home tired, frustrated, and cussing up a storm. The computers were finally installed at work. They were so excited, watching the workers carry in the monitors and CPU units, fiddling with all the wiring. The activity was fascinating and the prospects promised of improved work conditions delightful, until they learned the price of the new technology. The memo arrived just after lunch. Their secretaries were going to be laid off. They were no longer needed. They’d been replaced by the computers.

For my father, it was the end of his world. He hadn’t quite figured out the computer process or system and relied upon the secretaries to help him out. And he was semi-illiterate. He could read, but he couldn’t type and couldn’t spell. Getting a handwritten letter from your own father with your name misspelled is an eye-opening experience in this age of literacy. I didn’t realize until then how much effort he’d put into concealing it. The secret was at risk. The computer brought great opportunities to his work life, but years of relying so heavily upon the secretaries to cover for him gave him nightmares.

I did my best to teaching him how to type, sitting with him for hours at our home computer, teaching him the basics. I became the teacher of the family at a very young age, embracing modern technology quickly, taking everything apart and putting it back together (successfully) even then, then showing others how to do the same. He struggled, and managed to hold onto his job for quite a while, until the ship building industry couldn’t hold its own in Seattle.

Secretaries were a form of technology because they improved the quality of life and work for busy employees. Today, computers have replaced them, and secretaries went on into new jobs, embracing new technologies or being hired as personal assistants, same job, new name. The computer is today’s pencil.

As I drive down the past lane, my focus will be on technology in all its forms as related to family history. It could be the pencil. It is likely the computer, printer, and scanner. It is about the web and online access to records and research techniques never before so readily accessible. It will be about the techniques in modern genealogical research, including online databases and archives, educational opportunities, and ways to preserve that research, and your family’s history.

As we share the journey, remember the pencil. Sometimes it’s the smallest of things that changes not only our lives but the world. And we must adapt.

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