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The Greatest Invention?

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What do you think constitutes the world's greatest invention? The Internet, TVs, VCRs, personal computers, desktop publishing, virtual reality, fat substitutes, ab sculptors, or whatever wonderful widgets your company makes?

Lincoln National Life Insurance Company of Fort Wayne, Indiana, gave their answer to this question in a full-page ad that appeared in the May 13, 1996, issue of Newsweek (page 42). They paid over $5,000 per word to quote Abraham Lincoln who said: "Writing . . . is the great invention of the world."

In smaller print, they continue: "Our goal is to write clearly, speak plainly and answer your questions fully." Since many insurance policies are written in legal mumbo-jumbo, if Lincoln National is truly producing clear, understandable documents, that would be enough to make me want to switch insurance companies.

However, the quotation by Lincoln is what most intrigues me. Does anybody today (besides idealistic technical writers) believe writing is the greatest invention? Lincoln lived before VCRs, computers, movie projectors, or even cars were invented. If he were alive today, would he still say the same thing?

I think he would.

Without writing, no records of what Lincoln said or any other history could exist. No Gettysburg Address, no Constitution of the United States, no Bible.

Without writing, no contemporary literature could inform and entertain us. No newspapers, no magazines, no novels, no lyrics printed on CD liners.

If you think you could get all the information and entertainment you wanted from TV, consider that without writing, no one could build a TV. Without writing, no complex device could be constructed because no one could produce schematics or assembly instructions. All the gadgets we take for granted could never be mass produced.

Without writing, therefore, many other forms of communication could not exist. No faxes, no telephones, no radios, no Internet.

We can all be grateful that people do write down nuggets of wisdom. We can applaud Lincoln National's commitment to better writing. We can also give thanks to Abe Lincoln for ennobling our profession.

Copyright 1996 Mark D. Stucky
Originally published in the Sept. 1996 issue of the Watermark.

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