What’s the Truth About Anti-Gravity Pens?
This is the 2nd installment of the saga of the Amazing Ballpoint Pen…
Have you heard the story about NASA spending a million dollars to design an anti-gravity pen that could write in space? According to the story, the Russians simply used a pencil.
It’s a great punch line, but is the story true?
Well, it is true that there is such a thing as an anti-gravity pen that NASA purchased in bulk from Fisher Pens in 1965.
It is also true that the Russian used pencils. At first. But so did the Americans, at first.
Astronauts from both countries quickly realized that using pencils in zero gravity wasn’t such a great idea.
The problem with lead pencils…
The “lead” of a pencil is actually made from graphite. And graphite shatters easily. On earth the problem is easily remedied with a visit to the pencil sharpener. Now, pencil sharpeners work just fine in zero gravity. The real problem is that when a pencil breaks l in a space capsule tiny splinters of wood and shards of graphite go flying off in every direction threatening both instruments and astronaut eyeballs.
You might be asking why didn’t astronauts just type data directly into an iPad or some early computer? Well for you youngsters out there, the first human was launched into space in 1961. Computers at the time were so large that taking one into space would have required hitching up a travel trailer. Or two.
So NASA tried to find a better pencil. In 1965, they purchased 34 specially designed space pencils from Tycam Engineering Manufacture Inc. for $4,382.50, which is roughly $32,000 today.
They were expensive, and the general public was not amused.
But the ballpoint pen? It was hardly the mature technology we take for granted today.
For instance should the roller ball be a bit rough to allow it to pick up ink? Or should it be smooth to prevent the ink from dribbling out? Even as inventors achieved a better office pen, World War II pilots discovered that the office pen wouldn’t write at high altitudes or in cold cockpits.
But by adjusting the pen to work in an airplane, the engineers made the pen dribble-prone again. Thus was born that iconic fashion accessory the pocket protector.
Complicating the issue further, ballpoint pens depend on gravity. (If you don’t believe me, try writing on a clipboard held overhead. See? You can only write a word or two before the ink stops.)
So if NASA didn’t develop the Anti-Gravity Pen, where did it come from?
Paul C. Fisher of the Fisher Pen Company wanted to develop a better ballpoint pen. He invested over a million dollars of his own money in the research.
Gradually he came up with a pen whose cartridge was completely sealed. It contained a special ink and pressurized nitrogen. The resulting pen wrote upside down and backwards, not to mention underwater and in temperatures ranging from -50 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. It was a technological marvel.
When he was ready to release his Rolls Royce pen, space explorations excited the popular imagination. So he called his creation the Anti-Gravity Pen, or AG-7 for short.
Fisher offered his pens to NASA, which eventually bought some, but not for a million dollars. In 1965 Fisher’s AG-7 pens sold for $3.98 (roughly $29.95 in 2015 dollars). Fisher sold NASA 400 at a bulk discount of $2.39 apiece.
NASA made Fisher’s Anti-Gravity pens famous. Those pens and their more evolved descendants are still selling today. For about $40.00 apiece.
So what about the Soviets? Were they stuck using cheap, risky pencils? Nope. They also bought Fisher’s Anti-Gravity pens for the same discounted price of $2.39 each.
A better mousetrap is good, but nothing beats an Anti-Gravity ballpoint pen.