The American’s Pen and the Soviet’s Pencil

Cold-War-FlagsAn old joke tells that during the Cold War, American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts found themselves with the odd problem of how to write under zero G. The ink within the pen’s pipe simply did not obey the patriotic swears neither from one nor from the other. Without reason to flow to the pen’s ball, it made the simple act of taking notes a hard endeavor.

The Americans invested hard on solving this problem: hundred thousand dollars were applied on the research of a pen whose major goal were to humiliate the Soviets in the conquer of space. For months, NASA research centers worked on this question up to finally they came out with an ultramodern spherographic pen with a triphasic-thermofluid self-pumping system able to write not only under zero G, but under any other conditions, even upside down.

Well, and the Russians? The Russians used a pencil.

This is the joke’s end, but not the story’s one.

The Americans in their seek for the ideal pen hired engineers, chemists and physicists that focused for months on research lines involving micromechanics, thermodynamics, fluid flow and new materials. To support the scientists, a small army of technicians, secretaries, administrators, security officers, drivers and house keepers were hired too. The dollars invested in this project paid not only those people, but indirectly reached even the graphic assistant of the publishing house where technical reports were printed and an illegal Mexican woman, who cleaned the hotel rooms where a specialist’s conference took place.

With the American money one bought vacuum pumps from Pennsylvania, chemicals from North Caroline, precision equipments from New York. After the pen’s development, the acquired experience allowed that those scientists and technicians contributed to improve the absorption of drugs in medical treatments and the mechanical control of micro-devices, which came to be very handy later for the developments of PCs.

Well, and the Russians? The Russians bought a box with twenty-four 2B pencils from a state company near Banska Brystrica, which closed doors when the Slovaks started to import cheaper pencils from China.


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Categories: Science Policy, Scientific Culture

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3 replies

  1. The joke’s actually really misleading. American astronauts started out using pencils like the Soviet cosmonauts, but NASA wanted to reconsider using highly flammable writing utensils after the Apollo 1 fire. The space pen was developed independently by Fisher and he wanted to sell it to NASA.


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