The Law of the Pencil

By Jordan Furlong

There’s an urban myth, thoroughly debunked but instructive nonetheless, involving the Ameri- can and Russian space programs in the 1960s. The legend goes that NASA needed a pen that would write in the vacuum of space, in extreme conditions, without breaking or freezing or oth- erwise malfunctioning at critical times. Scientists set to work and spent several months and mil- lions of dollars to invent a “Space Pen” that would do the job.

The Soviets, faced with similar challenges but much less money, chose to go a different route. They used a pencil.

We always seem to forget about the pencil. It’s one of the first writing instruments we learned to use as children, and many of us still remember that satisfying rhythmic grinding of the pencil in a plastic hand-held sharpener (or better again, the thrill of using the heavy- duty crank-driven pencil sharpener bolted to the teacher’s desk). But then, somewhere along the road to adulthood, we started to use ballpoint pens and mark- ers, and few of us ever looked back.

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