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The Fisher Space Pen: Arglebargle or Fufurah?

The Space Review: The billion-dollar space pen

Knowing I'm such a huge nerd for space pens (previously), it's not surprising that I get a couple emails a month from gloaty people pointing to the high-larious anecdote about how Paul Fisher's write-anywhere pen represents one of the 1960s' greatest boondoggles of government waste and gold-plating.

"Ha!" they note exclamation-pointedly, "these geniuses over at NASA spent [insert boondoggle-y dollar figure of at least $1,000,000] to develop a pen that could write in space. Know what the freakin' Russians used?!? A pencil, dude! A pencil!"

Like I say: hilarious.

Setting aside for a moment whether this disturbing cautionary tale from forty years hence has any bearing on how well the space pen works as advertised for consumers today, the story has its minor failings; it's kind of untrue and not a little misleading.

Apparently, pencils were once used by both sides in the Space Race, but they were reasoned a hazard based on the catastrophic possibilities of tiny broken leads whizzing around in zero gravity. So, as soon as the Space Pen became available and was tested for suitability, it seems the U.S. (as well as, evidently, the Russians) abandoned pencils for good from 1968 on. Anyhow, to my knowledge, any development money for the pen came straight out of Paul Fisher's pocket -- not from NASA nor any other government agency.

I'd known some of this for years, and, of course, have always relished tinkling in readers' bowls of smug by providing the debunking/clarifying Snopes link.

What I didn't know until today was the the whole story behind Paul Fisher's ambitious entry into the space age writing economy. It's a fascinating mix of engineering, marketing, and blatant self-promotion that tangentially involves baloney sandwiches, a diamond ring, and a brassiere:

In the mid-1960s Paul Fisher of the Fisher Pen Company developed the Space Pen. He did this on his own, without prompting by NASA and without NASA money. What he did want from NASA was publicity, and to this end he managed to get his congressman to insert a promotional history of his Space Pen into the Congressional Record in March 1966. Fisher then contacted NASA and sought their review of promotional literature about the Space Pen...

To Fisher’s credit, his company produced a good pen. Within a few years NASA was indeed buying the Space Pen, which NASA called the “Data Recording Pen”, in several “configurations” designated -204, -207 and -208. The pen was carried aboard Apollo and Skylab missions. At that point, Fisher could honestly claim that the Space Pen flew in space and was used by American astronauts. Naturally, that became a key part of Fisher’s advertising campaign...

The Million Dollar Space Pen Myth is just that, a myth. The pens never cost a lot of money and were not developed by wasteful bureaucrats or overactive NASA engineers. The real story of the Space Pen is less interesting than the myth, but in many ways more inspiring. It is not a story of NASA bureaucrats versus simplistic Russians, but a story of a clever capitalist who built a superior product and conducted some innovative marketing. That story, however, is a little harder to sell to a public that believes what it wants to believe.

[ Via several readers. Thanks! ]

TOPICS: Links, Lofi

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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