OpEd

With this pencil the entire Balkans wrote - and Sigmund Freud

In Zagreb, the company Penkala, which produced various writing instruments: pencils, chemical pencils, fountain pens, went bankrupt. From the Slovenian Alps to Lake Ohrid, thousands of people have written their first letters with a "pen". The founder of the firm was a versatile inventor.

If you ask the elderly in the Balkans who held Yugoslavia together, the answer in most cases will be: Josip Broz Tito. Qejfliu and the communist dictator died 44 years ago, seven independent states were created on the ruins of his multinational federation.

If you ask people interested in history in the Balkans what has held Yugoslavia together, they usually mention two brands: the yellow pencil called Vegeta and the writing tools of Penkalas, a traditional firm from Croatia. Vegeta is still present on the free market (even in stores in Switzerland). While Penkala went bankrupt a few weeks ago. And thus a part of the written culture and history of the Balkans will disappear. 

Who grew up in Yugoslavia, scribbled his first letters with a Penkala pencil. Love letters were often written with this firm's pencil, contracts and receipts were signed with Penkala's elegant fountain pen, for technical drawings people had the technical pencil at their disposal.

The pen was synonymous with writing instruments. Whoever wrote with him could be proud of having achieved something in socialist society. Penkala's fountain pen was a symbol of social status as much as a popular souvenir, uniting all of Yugoslavia. The quality of the "penkalla" was also praised in popular songs in the Albanian language. Tempi passati, these times are over. Handwriting is slipping out of people's hands more and more.

Keyboards and "touchscreens" are driving away the pencil and pen. Holiday greetings, written on the back of panoramas, have become rare. Instead, the Whatsapp chirping gets on my nerves, a digital hammer blow intended to draw our attention to the fact that in the green Whatsapp box there are 333 unopened messages with pictures from the Croatian coast, all of them adorned with "emoji" and some written things, step and go.

With the bankruptcy of the Penkala company, Croatian historian and publicist Dragan Markovina recently wrote, another chapter in the history of Yugoslavia closes. The newspaper "Večernji list", which is published in Zagreb, called the news about Penkala's bankruptcy sad and shameful. Penkala was founded in 1937 in the Croatian capital. But the genesis of the firm goes further, to 1906, when the Slavic engineer Eduard Penkala patented a mechanical pencil in Budapest. Back then, Croatia was part of the Habsburg Monarchy.

The ad - a smiling man with a pencil behind his giant ear - praised the invention in several languages, including German: “This is a pencil that stays sharp without ever sharpening or turning the other way. Even unattainably thin and durable colored pencils. Elegant, simple and durable!” In 1907 the Slavolub Eduard Penkala made the next discovery: the solidified ink fountain pen, a forerunner of today's pencil, which put an end to quill pens and fountain pens that had to be filled with ink from a bottle.

However, Hungarian László József Bíró is known as the inventor of the practical pencil, who received the corresponding patent in the middle of the Second World War. As early as the end of the 19th century, the first pencil models were developed to revolutionize writing. While Friedrich Schiller described his era as "the century of ink drawings", Friedrich Nietzsche expressed his skepticism regarding the new means of writing.

"If now there will be no more pauses to dip the quill in the bottle, to fill the bottle and to dry the paint, then tell me - please, when can we develop ideas?", thought the nihilist Nietzsche.

Slavolub Eduard Penkala was a child of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was born in 1871 in the Slovak town of Liptovsky Mikulas, finished high school in Poland, studied in Vienna and Dresden and at the beginning of the 20th century he came to Zagreb, where the young engineer was assigned to the post of mass controller in the service of the Danubian Monarchy. . In Zagreb, Penkala showed great inventiveness and over the course of his career filed 80 patents, among them automatic bridles for mountain trains, a special toothbrush, and a bottle for keeping hot water and warming the body. In 1910 Penkala built the first airplane in Croatia and flew this two-seater about 60 meters at a height of 1,5 meters. After an accident, he gave up his aviation plans. Until he died suddenly at the age of 50, Penkala, together with two business partners, transformed his small workshop into an enterprise with 800 employees, which sold its products in more than 70 countries. From this enterprise in 1937 TOZ Penkala was founded in Zagreb.

After the victory of the communist partisans in the Second World War, the firm was nationalized and for nearly five decades it produced stationery for all of Yugoslavia - from the Slovenian Alps to Lake Ohrid. With the dissolution of the common state in the early 1990s, TOZ Penkala was also left without a domestic market, which stretched from Slovenia to Macedonia. In independent Croatia, the privatized enterprise faced financial difficulties.

To attract visitors to the enterprise, the management of TOZ Penkala announced the purchase of a giraffe a few years ago. Even the greatest optimists found it clear that the future does not begin where such ideas flourish, which only mask failure. After 87 years, Penkala finally closed its doors. It did not survive the digital age.

Those who have read this far can probably ask: where did Sigmund Freud end up? Qe: in Freud's lectures on psychoanalysis, held in 1916/17, Penkala pencils are mentioned among the "obviously masculine sexual symbols". In the work "Interpretation of Dreams" (published in 1899), Penkala pencils were not mentioned, because Slavolub Eduard Penkala brought them to the market only in 1906.

From 1908, advertisements were published in newspapers: happy, eye-catching men with pencils behind their ears, diplomats who carried pencils on their shoulders instead of rifles, intellectuals who did not forget their "pen" even when they went on ski vacations. More details on Freud's things can be found in the book "Freuds Dinge" (Freud's Things) by the German journalist Lothar Müller published by the most wonderful publishing house in the world: Die Andere Bibliothek, the other library, founded by the great writer German Hans-Magnus Enzensberger. Well, that's another story, a little longer.