UBC Reports | Vol. 47 | No. 09 | May
Is there a lesson in ceremony's fine-feathered past?
The royal swans once had a role to play at Congregation
So you think voice mail and wristwatch-sized fax machines
advances we could do without?
Well, the war between technologies was waging long before the computer chip
reared its tiny techno-head. The outrage at UBC in 1939 was pens.
"Modern fountain pens" were being used to sign honorary degree documents during
Congregation, much to the horror of the late Prof. G. J. Spencer of the Zoology
In a letter to then UBC president Leonard Klinck, Spencer expressed his
"distress" at the use of such a pen "hastily produced from the Registrar's
He felt the procedure lacked the dignity and tradition associated with the
To produce the proper pomp, Spencer wrote to the King of England's royal
swan-keeper asking for some suitable quills to be sent to
Upon their arrival, he chose and sharpened several to be used in the signing
He also arranged for a container to be made of local red cedar. His wife made a
lining for the box so the quills could rest quietly in mothproof comfort.
A man of foresight, Spencer created special bald eagle quills for left-handed
honorary degree recipients, although it is unclear why swan feathers were
considered unsuitable for southpaws.
Lord Tweedsmuir was the first person to use one of the quills when he received
his honorary degree from UBC in 1939.
The fine feathers were used until 1991 at which time they were retired to
UBC Archives, box and all.
And what do honorary degree recipients now use as they sign their name to the
A fountain pen produced from the Registrar's pocket.