Mini-Stories: Volume 10

The Universal Pen by Kurt Kohlstedt

After Roman and Kurt published The 99% Invisible City, they went on Reddit to answer questions from fans — and one of them asked if we’d be interested in covering left-handedness. So Kurt wrote an article about the challenges of being a lefty in a world mainly designed for righties. But it also reminded him of a space-age device designed not just for left- or right-handed people, but for anyone, anywhere.

There’s an old urban legend that while NASA was spending millions of dollars developing a pen that could write in space, the Soviets just used a pencil. It’s a tidy tale, but effectively untrue — in reality, space agencies around the world tried different approaches, including pencils, but small fragments of graphite and other debris could be highly dangerous if they clogged up electronics or filters. That’s where a entrepreneur name Paul Fisher came into the picture, determined to solve the problem of zero-gravity writing through his own company, independent of any space program.

Normal ballpoint pens rely on gravity to draw ink down onto a page, which was a no-go in space. So Fisher poured millions into research and development to create a pen to not only write absent gravity, but also withstand extreme heat and cold (plus: last for decades). Then, instead of charging space agencies a fortune to use his creation, he offered it to them at retail rates — arguably a good marketing move, since Fisher’s space pens then also took off among consumers. Where literal rocket scientists had failed, a businessman had succeeded, and since he held the patent, he could market them to the public, too.

The key component of these space pens is nitrogen-pressurized ink contained in hermetically-sealed cartridges. Most pens use gravity to drain ink down onto a page, but these pens actively push the ink out.  This mechanism proved helpful for left-handed writers, too. Consider a ballpoint pen: if you pull it across the page from left to right (in your right hand), the ball rolls and ink comes out as usual. But if you push it across the page (in your left hand), the rolling is impeded — you’re working against the mechanism, essentially. Since Fisher’s pens actively push ink out, orientation doesn’t matter — righties, lefties, people laying on their backs and writing on ceilings, it works for all of them.

Fisher designed these pens for astronauts going out to explore the universe, but right here on Earth they proved to be a different kind of universal design, accessible to people writing in any direction. Kurt, for his part, carries a space pen around in his backpack, just in case — it’s nice to have a writing utensil handy that anyone can use.

  1. Mary Sue Hunt

    There was no mention in the story about what the farmers use the sheep for. If they are eaten, does their diet make the meat taste differently? And if they use the wool, does the diet impact the texture or how it can be used in any way?

  2. Scott McR

    I don’t think it was the failure of the kelp industry that forced the islanders away… I’d be more inclined to unromanticize it and lay a lot of the blame to the highland clearances. Cattle was worth more than people

  3. Alex

    The sheep wall reminds of the vast number of dry stone walls that are around the English Lake District. I have watched a guy repair a wall over the last year and there is real craftsmanship in his work. The result is amazing and no rock is broken up, just placed in a complex jigsaw, but it is very slow.

    The area has a lot of hills (or rather fells as we call them). In fact Alfred Wainwright in his Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells noted 214 of them. Many of these fells have dry stone walls in pretty weird places. Like on some very steep slopes that you’d struggle to walk up. Local legend has it that a lot of these were built by prisoners of war from the Napoleonic wars. I’m fairly certain that these walls and sheepfolds have been around for a lot longer. Either way a nice sight on our landscape.

  4. Isobel

    The plastic roads discussed would be perfect for Los Angeles. They would address LA’s soil erosion problem by collecting rain water and redistributing it directly beneath the roads, rather than simply being runoff which causes flash flooding. The city is already trying to address the erosion problem by making new buildings use permeable paving surfaces on the ground. Using roads to collect water would massively increase the catchment area.
    LA would be the perfect opportunity test the strength of this product.

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