April 30, 2013
To the untrained eye, cattle brands, those unique markings seared into animals’ hides with a hot iron, might just seem like idiosyncratic logos or trademarks designed to clearly and simply indicate ownership. However, unlike the graphic logos and trademarked images of popular commercial brands, they must comply with a rigorous set of standards and are developed using a specific language ruled by its own unique syntax and morphology.Livestock branding dates back to 2700 BC, evidenced by Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Ancient Romans are said to have used hot iron brands as an element of magic. But brands are most famously associated with the cowboys and cattle drives of the Old West, when brands were used to identify a cow’s owner, protect cattle from rustlers (cattle thieves), and to separate them when it came time to drive to market (or rail yards or stock yards).
At its most basic, a cattle brand is composed of a few simple letters and numbers, possibly in combination with a basic shape or symbols like a line, circle, heart, arc, or diamond. But these characters can also be embellished with serif-like flourishes to create myriad “pyroglyphics.” For example, such serifs might include extraneous “wings” or “feet” added to a letter or number. Each character can also be rotated or reversed. Every addition and variation results in a unique character that is named accordingly. The letters with “wings” for example, are described as “flying” while those with “feet” are, you guessed it, “walking.” An upside-down characters is “crazy” while a 90-degree rotation makes a character “lazy.” These colorful designations aren’t just cute nicknames used to identify the characters, but are actually a part of the name, a spoken part of the brand language, which like most western languages is read from left to right, top to bottom and, perhaps unique to brands, outside to inside.
The vast array of combinations made possible by these characters and variations ensures that unique and identifiable brands can be created –hopefully without repetition– using only limited formal language. And sometimes they could even be used to make a joke:
Serifs and rotations are just two of the primary ways brand letters can be modified. Multiple symbols may be joined together forming a type of ligature – a term used in typography to describe a single character representing two or more letters, such as æ. Some of these ligature brands are read as “connected” while others are given unique identifiers:
When it comes to getting your brand approved by the authorities, location is as important as design. The reason? The same brand can be registered in the same country as long as its located on a different part of the animal. The following two brands, for example, are considered distinct markings:
Brands are registered like trademarks or copyrights and are monitored, taxed and regulated. So if an owner failed to pay the brand tax, the brand could no longer be offered as “valid prima facie evidence of ownership.” Brands were, and continue to be, a critical element of the cattle industry unless –bonus fun fact!– you happen to have been 19th century Texas politician and rancher Samuel A. Maverick, who refused to brand his cattle and consequently saw his own surname immortalized as a brand for those independent few who refuse to follow the precepts of social order.
Today, the most successful trademarks and brand identities are the simplest and easiest to identify. Think of Nike’s swoosh or McDonald’s golden arches. The same is true for cattle brands. Not only is it easier to read a simple brand, but its less painful for the livestock. However, it can’t be too simple because the brand itself also serves as a means to combat theft and fraud, in much the same way that the swoosh is also an indicator of authenticity. Cattle rustlers would sometimes use a hot iron to alter brands into a similar graphic, then claim the cow as their own – its like a failing middle school student changing an “F” on his grade card to a “B” with a few pen marks so his parents don’t get upset. Although the phrase “cattle rustler” conjures romantic images of the Old West, it is still a very real problem for today’s ranchers. In fact, the U.S. is currently experience something of a rustling renaissance. Consequently, there’s also something of a branding revival. Despite the invention of GPS tagging, DNA testing (yes, for cattle), and other preventative measures, branding is still the top preventative measure to combat cattle theft. Carl Bennett, director of the Louisiana Livestock Brand Commission recently told USA Today that ”We have yet to find a system that can replace a hot brand on a cow. There’s nothing in modern society that’s more sure.”
March 19, 2013
It’s nearly impossible to walk around a city or college campus or shopping mall, or really anywhere these days, without seeing at least a few dozen people wearing little earbuds stuffed into their ears, or even huge headphones that look like something a 747 pilot might wear. The ubiquity of modern headphones could perhaps be attributed to the Sony Walkman, which debuted in 1979 and almost immediately became a pop culture icon. As the first affordable, portable music player, the Walkman became such an prominent characteristic of the young urban professional that it was even featured on the cover of The Yuppie Handbook. But of course, the history of headphones dates back further than the 1980s. Like many commercial electronics, modern headphones (and stereo sound) originated, in part, in the military. However, there’s not a singular figure or company who “invented” the headphones, but a few key players who brought them from military bases and switchboards into the home and out to the street.
In the 1890s, a British company called Electrophone created a system allowing their customers to connect into live feeds of performances at theaters and opera houses across London. Subscribers to the service could listen to the performance through a pair of massive earphones that connected below the chin, held by a long rod . The form and craftsmanship of these early headphones make them a sort of remote, audio equivalent of opera glasses. It was revolutionary, and even offered a sort of primitive stereo sound. However, the earliest headphones had nothing to do with music, but were used for radio communication and telephone operators in the late 19th century.
Before the Electrophone, French engineer Ernest Mercadier patented a set of in-ear headphones in 1891, as engineer Mark Schubin noted in an excellent article on the history of headphones. Mercadier was awarded U.S. Patent No. 454,138 for “improvements in telephone-receivers…which shall be light enough to be carried while in use on the head of the operator.” After extensive testing and optimization of telephone receivers, Mercadier was able to produce miniature receivers that weighed less than 1 3/4 ounces and were “adapted for insertion into the ear.” His design is an incredible feat of miniaturization and is remarkably similar to contemporary earbud headphones, down to the use of a rubber cover “to lessen the friction against the orifice of the ear…[and] effectually close the ear to external sounds.”
Do telephone headsets go back further than Mercadier’s 1891 patent? Sort of, but they’re almost unrecognizable shoulder harness-like objects that barely meet the definition by today’s standard. So let’s flash forward to the birth of the modern headphones.
In the years leading up to WWI, it wasn’t uncommon for the Navy to receive letters from small businesses and inventors offering up their unique products and skills. In 1910, a particularly memorable letter written in purple ink on blue and pink paper came from Utah native Nathaniel Baldwin, whose missive arrived with a pair of prototype telephone headsets offered for military testing. While the request wasn’t immediately taken seriously, the headphones were eventually tested and found to be a drastic improvement over the model then being used by Naval radio operators. More telephones were requested for testing and Baldwin obliged at his own expense.
The Navy offered Baldwin some suggestions for a a few tweaks, which he promptly incorporated into a new design that, while still clunky, was comfortable enough for everyday use. The Navy placed an order for Baldwin’s headphones, only to learn that Baldwin was building them in his kitchen and could only produce 10 at a time. But because they were better than anything else that had been tested, the Navy accepted Baldwin’s limited production capabilities. After producing a few dozen headphones, the head harness was further improved as its design was reduced to only two leather-covered, adjustable wire rods attached at each end to a receiver that supposedly contained a mile of copper wire. The new headset proved to be an immediate success and the Navy advised Baldwin to patent this new model of headphone. Baldwin, however, refused on the grounds that it was a trivial innovation. In order to increase production, the Navy wanted to move Baldwin out of his Utah kitchen and into much larger East Coast facility. But Nathaniel Baldwin was a polygamist and couldn’t leave Utah. Another manufacturer, the Wireless Specialty Apparatus Co., got wind of the situation and worked with the inventor to build a factory in Utah and manufacture the headphones. The agreement with Wireless Specialty came with one enormous caveat: the company could never raise the price of headsets sold to the U.S. Navy.
The next big innovation in headphone design came after the second World War, with the onset of stereophonics and the popular commercialization of the technology. Record label EMI pioneered stereo recordings in 1957 and the first commercial stereo headphones were created a year later by musician and entrepreneur John Koss, founder of the Koss Corporation. Koss heard about a “binaural audio tape” from a friend and was thrilled to hear how it sounded through a pair of military grade headphones. Determined to bring this sound to the public, Koss developed an entire “private listening system,” the Koss Model 390 phonograph, for enjoying music that included a phonograph, speaker and headphone jacks all in one small package. The only problem was that there were no commercially available headphones that were compatible with his new phonograph. They were all made for communication or warplanes. Koss talked with an audio engineer about this and they quickly rigged up a pair of makeshift prototype headphones. “It was a great sound,” Koss remembers. The design was refined built from two vacuum-formed brown plastic cups containing three-inch speakers protected by a perforated, light plastic cover and foam ear pads. These were connected by a bent metal rod and the Koss SP-3 headphones were born. “Now the whole thing was there,” remembers Koss. Music lovers embraced the stereophonic headphones due to their enhanced sound quality, which was made possible by the use of different signals in each ear that could closely approximate the sounds of a concert hall. The design was well received when it debuted at a hi-fi trade show in Milwaukee in 1958 and was almost immediately copied by other manufacturers, standardizing the design of headphones around the world for years to come.
An interesting footnote to this story is the suggestion from media theorist Friedrich Kittler that, while Koss may have created the first truly stereo headphones, the first people to actually experience stereophonic sound through headphones were the members of the German Luftwaffe during World War II.
In his book Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Kittler describes the innovative radar system used by the German Airforce during World War II, which allowed headphone-wearing pilots to reach the destinations and bombers to accurately drop payload without visually seeing their targets:
“Radio beams emitted from the coast facing Britain…formed the sides of an ethereal trailing the apex of which was located precisely above the targeted city. The right transmitter beamed a continuous series of Morse dashes into the pilot’s right headphone, while the left transmitter beamed an equally continuous seres of Morse dots–always exactly in between the dashes–into the left headphone. As a result, any deviation from the assigned course results in the most beautiful ping-pong stereophony.”
When the pilots reached their target, the two radio signals merged into one continuous note. As Kittler writers, “Historically, [the German pilot] had become the first consumer of a headphone stereophony that today controls us all.”
The above mentioned designs are only a few of the more prominent developments in the history of personal audio. It’s likely that there are even earlier inventions and it’s certain that there are many, many other individuals who should be thanked for their contributions to the development of the modern headphones that let us shut out the roar of plane engines with music, listen to play-by-play analysis while watching a baseball game in person, and strut down the street to our own personal soundtracks.
Captain Linwood S. Howeth, USN, “The Early Radio Industry and the United States Navy,” History of Communications-Electronics in the United States Navy (1963): 133-152; Peter John Povey and Reg A. J. Earl, Vintage Telephones of the World (London: Peter Peregrinus Ltd., 1988); Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. by Geoffrey Winthop-Young and Michael Wutz (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999); Virginia Hefferman, “Against Headphones,” The New York Times (January 7, 2011); Mark Schubin “Headphones, History, & Hysteria” (2011), http://www.schubincafe.com/2011/02/11/headphones-history-hysteria/; “Koss History,” http://www.koss.com/en/about/history; Google patents
March 5, 2013
From the moment the first hot-air balloon took flight in 1783, the earliest pioneers of human flight believed that the true future of aviation depended on the lighter-than-air inflatables and the creation of massive airships. Benjamin Franklin believed hot-air balloons “to be “a discovery of great importance, and one which may possibly give a new turn to human affairs.” He even suggested that they may herald an end to war. By the late 19th century balloons had been used for sport, travel, commerce, adventure, and, despite Franklin’s dreams, even war. But these designs rarely deviated from the now-iconic balloon-and-basket that’s now familiar to anyone who has ever seen The Wizard of Oz or Around the World in 80 Days. However, there were a few mad visionaries who thought bigger than the basket, designing incredibly elaborate, sometimes ingenious, balloon machines that could carry hundreds of passengers across the globe or a single individual across a city.
The early success with balloon flight inspired designers to push the limit of possibility and inventiveness. One of the largest ships imagined by early balloonists was proposed by a physicist named Robertson in 1804, the Minerva (top image), “an aerial vessel destined for discoveries, and proposed to all the Academies of Europe.” Robertson’s great ship was supported by a 150-foot diameter silk balloon coated in india-rubber and designed to carry up to 150,000 pounds. For its maiden voyage, Robertson planned for the Minevra to carry 60 people, mostly academics, halfway around the world for a period of up to six months. These scholars and scientists would observe, collect data, and conduct experiments. The trip would be particularly useful for cartographers, who would create new maps of previously impenetrable and unexplored landscapes. The great ship that carried these prestigious passengers was equipped with “all the things necessary for the convenience, the observations, and even the pleasures of the voyagers.” This included a large barrel for storing water and wine, a gym, an observatory equipped with all manner of instruments, a kitchen (“the only place where a fire shall be permitted”), a theater, and a boat. Robertson, it would seem, had planned for everything – even the failure of his invention.
“Over what a vast space might not one travel in six months with a balloon fully furnished with the necessaries of life, and all the appliances necessary for safety? Besides, if, through the natural imperfection attaching to all the works of man, or either through accident or age, the balloon, borne above the sea, became incapable of sustaining the travellers [sic], it is provided with a boat, which can withstand the waters and guarantee the return of the voyagers.”
It all sounds very civilized, doesn’t it? A cruise ship in the sky.
Of course, Robertson wasn’t alone in his dreams of mastering the skies for economic and cultural gain. This cartoonish vehicle, referred to as “The Great Aerial Navigator or Atmospheric Machine” was created by the presumably short-lived London-based Aerial Conveyance Company to move troops and government officials to the farthest reaches of the British Empire. A single engine controls the many paddles, wheels, arms, wings, and the amenities are otherwise similar to those offered by the Minerva.
The “Aeronautic Chariot” was designed in the 1780s, shortly after the first successful balloon flight in history, by Richard Crosbie, “Ireland’s First Aeronaut.” It was one of the first designs for air travel and, as a result, a relatively straightforward combination of old and new, joining traditional ship design with its masts, sails, paddles, and rigging, with a 40-foot-diameter hydrogen-filled balloon. The large paddles attached to the hull of the ship were designed to be spun so quickly that the resulting gusts would fill the sails with enough air to move the ship forward. The main hull of the Chariot was actually built for an exhibition, although it never successfully took flight.
Breaking from the nautical tradition completely, French balloonist Petin designed an 160-yard-long airship held aloft by four balloons, “each of which should have the diameter of the Corn Exchange of Paris.” Unlike some of the other designs, there was no primary cabin or ship’s hull for passengers, but rather an enormous platform – a sort of aerial promenade. One of the biggest challenges facing early aeronauts was devising a way to actually steer the balloon, and Petin’s proposed design for a steering mechanism was almost elegant in its simplicity. He created an airscrew that looks and works like a cross between air airplane propeller and a Venetian blind that could be opened and closed to catch the wind and steer the ship (an exhaustive and exhausting scientific explanation of the how the ship was flown can be read here). Petin petitioned the French government for financing but they would have none of it. Their reluctance may be explained by what some reported as a fear that ballooning would adversely affect the custom-house and possibly destabilize the country.
From massive creations designed to convey hundreds of people, we now turn to an early personal hot air balloon. The “saddle balloon” was designed by German engineer George Rodek around 1895. The above illustration, which is uncredited, looks something like a flying police officer surveying the city below him with an incandescent searchlight; the all-seeing eye of the Berlin’s flying finest. Or it could be some sort of pulp, fin-de-siecle superhero: The Aeronaut. This particular aeronaut, surrounded by his meteorological equipment, sandbags, and enormous grappling hook, may well have been the daring Rodek himself, who actually built this device and astounded onlookers by ascending in his ingenious, though surely uncomfortable vehicle.
When the Wright Brothers took to the air with their 1903 flyer, plans for balloon travel were largely –though not completely– abandoned. There was still a cultural and strategic use for balloons, and dreams of airships never quite died, but with the dawn of the 20th century, scientists, designers, and engineers seem to have switched their attentions to mastering the aeroplane. Today, with a few notable exceptions, the hot-air balloon that once seemed poised to change the world is mostly just used for sightseeing and wedding proposals, but the inventiveness of these early designs will always inspire wonder at what could-have-been.
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March 1, 2013
3D printers and digital mapping services are making it drastically easier to produce infinite identical copies of anything, for better or worse, for humanitarian or for destructive purposes. A digital map can be accessed by anyone with a smartphone or computer and a replica of Michelangelo’s David can be made at home just as easily as an assault rifle. While the relatively new technology of 3D printing is proving popular with designers, fabricators and the general public, it hasn’t yet reached the ubiquity of the home printer. But it only seems to be a matter of time until desktop fabrication is as common as desktop publishing. The technology is getting cheaper and more efficient every year, and even though 3D printing has barely been established, engineers are already hard at work on 4D printing (the fourth dimension is time!). One ambitious company has recently caused a sensation on Kickstarter with its prototype for a 3D printing pen.
These latest drawing and modeling technologies are fascinating, but when did the idea of 3D printing originate? What are some of the earliest drawing and fabrication “machines”? To find the answer we go back to the days before copiers or even carbon paper, back to the Renaissance, to a man who invented digital reproduction in the original sense of the word.
Leon Battista Alberti was an Italian philosopher, scientist, architect and all around polymath who lived during the 15th century. Basically, he was your prototypical Renaissance man. Alberti is perhaps one of the most important and influential creative figures to come out of the Renaissance, although he is one of the less widely known. He believed that art and science were united by basic principles of mathematics, and among his many accomplishments Alberti defined the principles of geometric construction known today as central perspective and invented techniques for producing identical copies of paintings, sculptures, and even buildings without the aid of mechanical devices such as the printing press. This desire for a method of creating identical copies came out of Alberti’s frustration with the inadequacies and inevitable mistakes that result from manual reproduction techniques. In his excellent book, The Alphabet and the Algorithm (which I’m currently enjoying and have previously mentioned on Design Decoded), architectural theorist and historian Mario Carpo describes these techniques as “digital” reproductions.
“Alberti tried to counter the failings of analog images by digitizing them, in the etymological sense: replacing pictures with a list of numbers and a set of computation instructions, or algorithms, designed to convert a visual image into a digital file and then recreate a copy of the original picture when needed.”
By reducing images to carefully calculated coordinates and documenting the method by which the original was created, Alberti ensured that anyone could produce copies that were exactly identical to his original work. The numeric manuscripts, which were easy to copy without error, represented a type of Renaissance file transfer.
Alberti’s most famous invention dealing with reproduction is the perspective machine, which is still used by artists today. The setup he designed for transcribing images from reality looks something like a modern Battleship game board. A gridded wooden screen separates the artist, whose eye is held at a fixed point at the center of the screen, from his subject. From the artists’s perspective, the object to be represented is mapped onto the framed grid; this way, the artist can accurately recreate the image on a paper that has been divided into a matching grid. The distance between these grid lines determines the “resolution” of the image, to borrow a term from the parlance of digital technology, and to a limited extent, the accuracy of the reproduction. If we wanted to extrapolate a little more to further make the comparisons with contemporary digital technology, we could even call these grid divisions pixels. Alberti’s perspective machine represented an important step in his quest to eliminate variability from reproduction, but, because it still relied on the hand of the artist, it did not completely remove human error. Alberti continued to develop math-based techniques of reproduction.
One of the most compelling works of true “digitization” is Alberti’s book containing a map of Rome, the Descriptio Urbis Romae, created around the 1440s. The book, however, does not contain an actual printed copy of a map. After painstakingly measuring and drawing the streets, temples and landscape of Rome, Alberti wanted to distribute his map, but he didn’t believe hand-made copies could accurately reproduce his original. While the technology for mechanical reproduction was in its nascent stages, its use was not widespread and its potential remained unrealized. Alberti’s solution? He transcribed his carefully crafted map into a series of polar coordinates measured from the peak of the Capitoline Hill. These coordinates are collected in the Descriptio in lieu of a hand-drawn map. His idea was that readers could transcribe an identical version of his map themselves, using Alberti’s notes and an astrolabe-like device that consisted of a rotating ruler attached to the center of a disc divided into degrees. Alberti’s coordinates and instructions are, as Carpo noted, a primitive type of algorithm—the same process that drives today’s computer-designed architecture and the software controlling digital fabrication machines.
But perhaps the most impressive of Alberti’s inventions is his technique for reproducing sculpture. In his treatise on figural sculpture, De statua, Alberti described a method of reproducing identical copies of sculptures using traditional tools and basic computation. First, the artist/copier takes precise measures of the sculpture’s height, width and its various diameters using the proper tools—t-squares, angles, etc. The main components of the sculpture are measured and documented numerically —“scanned,” essentially—in relation to one another and to the entire length of the statue. To get more precise measurements of the statue’s details, a device of Alberti’s invention known as the definitor or finitorium is installed atop the statue. Similar to the device used to create the map of Rome, the finitorium is a flat disc inscribed with degrees joined to a movable arm, also inscribed with measurements; from the end hangs a weighted line. By rotating the arm and raising or lowering the plumb line, it is technically possible, although surely infuriatingly slow, to map every point on the statue in three-dimensional space relative to its central axis. That data could then be sent to a craftsman who would use it to create an identical copy of the original statue.
This brings us back to 3D printing. There are many different kinds of 3D printers that create models from various types of plastic, but they all essentially work the same. The printer processes digital blueprints—coordinates located in virtual space—of an object created by modeling software and digitally “slices” the model into pieces small enough to be created by the machine. These components are layered on top of one another and bound together almost seamlessly, creating an identical physical reproduction of the original digital model. 3D scanning and printing is obviously much, much faster than Alberti’s method, but it functions in much the same way—except, of course, for the automated documentation of an object’s shape and the robotic construction using synthetic materials. Alberti even boasted that his methods could be used to recreate different parts of a sculpture at different times or in different locations and that his method was so exact, these individual components could be seamlessly assembled to create an exact replica of the original—a process that sounds a lot like modern manufacturing.
With both the old and new technologies, any statue—any thing, really—can be theoretically recreated at any size anywhere. Take, for instance, Michelangelo’s David. In 2000, Stanford labs created a nearly perfect digital 3D replica of the David that users can rotate and manipulate to examine the sculpture in much closer detail than would be possible if they were to visit the original in Florence. From six tons to thirty-two gigabytes, the digitized replica of Michelangelo’s masterpiece can now be reconstituted in the studio of anyone with a high-speed internet connection, enough hard drive space and some automatic fabrication equipment. The flexibility afforded by the digital model creates entirely new ways for people to experience the statue. For example, an enormous golden reproduction known formally as David (inspired by Michelangelo) was created in 2005 by conceptual artist Serkan Ozkaya and is currently installed in the 21c Museum in Louisville, Kentucky.
3D printers and other forms of digital fabrication will possibly change the way we live in the future. But the ideas behind these paradigm-shifting machines have been around for a long time, and the dream of sharing and creating identical copies dates all the way back to the 15th century. Scientists, artists and philosophers like Alberti lacked the technological sophistication to make their ideas practical, and, in some cases, they lacked the imagination to even realize the possibilities of what they proposed. But that’s no longer a problem. We have the technology. The designers of tomorrow will realize the dreams of the Renaissance.
January 11, 2013
Recently on Design Decoded, we looked at President Obama’s favorite technologically advanced pen and today we’re looking at mine. During my last visit to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, there were two things I had to do: see the original 1903 Wright Flyer and buy a Fisher Space Pen. I couldn’t help but wonder though, just who was this “Fisher” and what makes the Space Pen so space-y?
The Fisher Space Pen was created by inventor, pen manufacturer, and (brief) JFK political opponent Paul C. Fisher. Fisher had been an innovator in the pen industry for years, even before he started his own company. His mastery of the ballpoint pen can be attributed in part to his experience working with ball bearings in a airplane propeller factory during World War II. Fisher also invented the “universal refill” ink cartridge, ultimately leading him to create the very first “Anti-Gravity” pen, the AG7, which was patented in 1966 and famously used by astronauts during the Apollo space missions. However, it’s a popular misconception that NASA invested millions of dollars into the development of the zero-gravity writing instrument. They didn’t. Nor did the space agency approach Fisher to develop a pen for use by American astronauts. According to a 2006 piece in Scientific American, the truth is that Fisher had been working on the design for years and had invested $1 million into the pen’s development. But Fisher wasn’t dreaming of astronauts writing postcards from Earth orbit, he was just looking to make a good pen that worked without leaking. After years of research and prototypes, he created what he believed to be the perfect pen – a pen with ink that wasn’t exposed to air and didn’t rely on gravity so it wouldn’t leak or dry up; a pen that could write underwater and function at temperatures ranging from -30 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Fisher’s breakthrough was perfectly timed with the space race and he offered the pens to NASA for consideration. After two years of testing, it was approved and Fisher’s pen accompanied Apollo 7 astronauts into space.
However, Fisher seems to enjoy perpetuating the NASA myth a little himself. In a 2004 interview, he claimed that the design came to him in a dream after NASA approached him in 1965 with their problem:
About two nights [after meeting with NASA] I had an interesting dream. My father had died about two years before, and in that dream, he came to me and said Paul, if you add a minute amount of rosin to the ink, that will stop the oozing. I told the chemist about that, and the chemist laughed! He said that won’t work. He tried every type and quantity of rosin. Three months later he came back to me and he said I was right! He said he was trying to find a way to make rosin work, but then he realized that I meant resin! He used two percent resin, and it worked fine….I called NASA and told them we could do it, and we developed the most valuable patent in all of the pen industry.
In the end, Fisher sold NASA 400 pens for the Apollo program for a 40 percent discount but, perhaps more importantly, he got some amazing marketing from the deal. Who wouldn’t want to write with the pen used by some of the first men in space? Early advertisements for the pen claimed it could write for 100 years (“even upside down!”). Contemporary product literature uses a very different but no less impressive metric, claiming that the newest space pens can write for 30.7 miles. Either way, it lasts longer and is much more reliable than standard ballpoint pens.
But did we even need a space pen in the first place? It’s said that Russia’s answer to the same problem was the pencil, bringing to mind the old Russian saying: “better is the enemy of good enough.” But wood and lead shavings in a zero-gravity, oxygen-rich environment can be incredibly dangerous, liable to interfere with instruments or catch on fire. Soon after its proven use by the Apollo crews, cosmonauts also started carrying the Fisher Space Pen in their space pocket-protectors.
The secret to the space pen is in the cartridge. It is a hermetically sealed tube containing thixotropic ink, pressurized nitrogen gas, and a tungsten carbide ballpoint tip. During development, Fisher found that while the pressurized cartridge successfully pushed ink out the tip of the pen, it also successfully leaked uncontrollably. Rather than redesign the cartridge, Fisher redesigned the ink. He developed a thixotropic ink that is a gel at rest, but turns into a liquid under pressure. Sort of like toothpaste. With this new, thicker ink, the pen didn’t leak and would only write when pressure was applied to the ballpoint. Success.
Paul C. Fisher died in 2006 but the legacy of his Space Pen continues. In 1998, “Seinfeld” famously built an episode around the pen (TAKE THE PEN!) and that same year, the QVC shopping channel showed the pen in use on the Space Station Mir, making it the first product sold from space. Today, there are nearly as many space pens as there are stars in the sky. Actually, that doesn’t quite hold up, but there are a lot of different space pen models, hundreds of different designs, and multiple engraving options. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the groundbreaking –or perhaps I should say atmosphere-breaking– ink cartridge that makes the pen possible.