The ballpoints and highlighters contained in the pencil case confused me. At first, I could not even figure out how to click the ballpoint out of the pen’s body. After fumbling with what looked like a button to depress, my thumb slipped and accidentally pressed down on the pocket clip, which pushed out the spring-loaded ink cartridge. When I tried out the pens (one with black and one with red ink), I was sadly disappointed that they wrote with a very scratchy feel, especially compared to the smooth-writing Jetstream from Mitsubishi Pencil Co. that had also been sent to me. I could not understand what was innovative or special about the scratchy pens or the highlighters, and I told my interviewer so.
He apologized for not having translated the Japanese on the package, which did not contain explanatory graphics. What was special about these pens (and highlighters), he explained, was that the mark they left could be erased just by rubbing across it with the plastic button that does not depress.
The trick was in a principle he termed “thermal friction,” hence the name Frixion for the implements. He demonstrated for me and asked me to try. I was duly impressed. Not only did the ballpoint and highlighter marks disappear completely, but there were no eraser crumbs left behind.
This was indeed an improvement on the erasable ballpoints that were introduced into the American market many decades ago. I was told that this Japanese innovation was the product of 30 years of research and development by the Pilot Corporation.
We talked about R&D, science versus engineering, and the depressed economy in both Japan and the United States. We also talked about the Nobel Prizes, which were being announced at the time of the interview, and the reporter told me how the Japanese were once again disappointed that none went to their countrymen. Japan may not be a leader in prize-winning science, I agreed, but it certainly is a force to be reckoned with in consumer products.
In the long run, I assured him, the kind of inventiveness that was exhibited in the stationery items and resulted from committed, product-driven R&D would lead to larger innovations that would help bring back the Japanese economy. I expressed the hope that the same will be true for the United States.
Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His latest book, An Engineers Alphabet: Gleanings from the Softer Side of a Profession, has just been published.
See Prof. Petroski's November column, An Engineer's Alphabet of Thoughts on Design.
See Prof. Petroski's October column, Distinguishing Between Scientists & Engineers.