|You know that "NASA spent millions of dollars to develop a space pen, cosmonauts used pencils" thing
||[Apr. 14th, 2014|10:00 am]
It's not actually accurate: NASA spent no money on it -- Fisher Pens developed a pen that would write in space, and wrote to NASA telling them what they'd done, and would they like to buy some, and NASA bought them spending the same amount of money anybody else would spend.|
So, let's tell the story.
"When the Americans started sending astronauts into space, they quickly discovered that ballpoint pens wouldn't work reliably in zero-gravity. So they used pencils and grease pencils. But they didn't work well; grease pencils smeared and hard-to-read numbers can kill, for instance. So they set up a list of what their requirements were. Fisher developed a pen that matched the list, and sold them to NASA for $2.95 apiece, which is $20 apiece in today's money. You can still buy them for that price, and Fisher made their investment back many, many times over -- it's still the core of their company.
The Soviets continued to use pencils. So graphite, which is a wonderful conductor, floated around and shorted out electronics. Wood shavings, which are inflammable, got into electronics and started fires. So the Soviets very, very quickly started buying the Fisher pens, too. Because they're a whole lot safer than pencils in space."
One of the things which I find ironic about this is that the incorrect story is often passed around to as a Conservative story about government waste and what's wrong with America.
But the REAL story tells about what's RIGHT with America -- from a Conservative perspective. It's actually a story which supports the Conservative narrative of how capitalism creates such good products at such good prices that that Communists, who abhorred everything about that, had no choice but to buy them themselves.
We have here a story about how one man, Fisher, looked at a need, had a brilliant insight about how to solve it, got investors, invested in his idea, and became wealthy (well, he started out wealthy, but he DID become wealthy-er). It's a story about how America allows you to risk money on your own ideas, and how this succeeds in making things better.
That's the Conservative narrative about how America is supposed to work. It's a story about how government got out of the way and allowed private industry to do a better job than they could.
This is a narrative that actually goes AGAINST how I think of things -- my bias is to assume that government-industry collusion will create worse products at higher prices. But this is a story which shows me wrong.
So I find it ironic that anti-government Conservatives pass around a false story, when the true story would serve their narrative better.
File under "Lies my engineering teacher told me."
Yep. Some years ago, as an "inspirational email", our then-Dean sent out the original version that made NASA out to be fools, as a way to admonish us to be frugal and use simple solutions. And I replied to him with what I found to be the true story, which is what you have above, and the point I made to *him* was that Fisher found an unserved niche, invented a way to fill it, and now has a nice little market that has been providing a tidy return for decades, which they never would have had if they had just stuck with making conventional pens. And that if he insisted on us all using only the simplest, only barely-acceptable technologies, we were going to miss the boat on practically everything.
He didn't send us any more "inspirational" messages after that.
Thank you. I didn't know all that.
2014-04-15 01:08 am (UTC)
Blame Robin Williams, he trafficked heavily in this story down thru the years...
Thank you for sharing this.