In this week's Friday funny, journalist and author Eugene Byrne looks at an amusing urban legend much beloved of engineers, and frequently used in management seminars because of its powerful moral about overcomplicated solutions.
In the 1960s, the story goes, NASA realised that astronauts would need a special pen for recording data, instrument readings etc. when in space. This pen would have to be capable of writing upside-down, in zero gravity, and in extremely high and low temperatures.
NASA enlisted some of the finest minds in the country and set them to work. After much trial and error, years of work, and the expenditure of 1.5 million dollars, they finally succeeded in developing a space pen. And the Russians? The Russians used pencils.
Initially, American astronauts used pencils, too, but they weren’t popular. If part of the pencil broke off and floated around the capsule, it was a minor nuisance that could turn into a serious hazard – it could get into an astronaut’s eye, or even cause instruments to short out. The wood in pencils was an added fire hazard in the oxygen-rich atmosphere of the capsule, but mechanical (propelling) pencils still presented the danger of tiny pieces of lead breaking off and floating around.
It was actually an American pen manufacturer, Paul C Fisher (1913-2006) who came up with the solution in 1965. Fisher realised the nature of the problem and developed the Fisher Space Pen without being asked, much less paid, by NASA. Fisher’s pen, with a tungsten carbide ballpoint precisely fitted to avoid leaks, used pressurised cartridges holding special ink which becomes less viscous when shaken. It can write on almost any material, at any angle and at great extremes of temperature.
True, it did cost around a million dollars to develop, but that was all Fisher’s money. He submitted his invention to NASA, who adopted it in 1967 after extensive testing. And the Russians? The Russians bought 100 Fisher Space Pens and 1,000 refill cartridges in 1969.