Space Technology- A Graphic Footnote

“…Beneath the rule of men entirely great,
The pen is mightier than the sword
.”  Edward Bulwer-Lytton 1839

In 1870 literary critic Edward Sherman Gould wrote that Bulwer-Lytton “had the good fortune to do, what few men can hope to do: he wrote a line that is likely to live for ages.”

170 years later Bulwer-Lytton is remembered more as the author of the famous opening lines “It was a dark and stormy night.” via the eponymous Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. (When Charles Schultz was working for Peanuts, this was Snoopy’s favorite opening gambit when he tried to get his creative canine writing juices flowing.).     

But if, metaphorically, the pen is mightier than the sword, what about the power of the humble and now almost forgotten pencil? It played a hitherto unsung role in the Russian side of the space race equation in the 1960s.

While the Chinese Communist takeover in 1949 was a technicolor complication ( a new Oriental Yellow Peril mixed with the Marxist Red Threat to produce a potentially ominous  new strain of political contagion,  the dreaded Orange Menace)  it was the Russians who remained the main Red Flag standard bearers and the main threat.

The Russians, of course, got away to a flying start with the first satellite, Sputnik I in October 1957, and a month later, with Laika, the first dog in space, (who didn’t get to live to write her autobiography because she only had a single ticket to ride).  Yuri Gagarin was the first person in space in April 1961. He had a return ticket. 

All this was was a seismic shock to the American military industrial complex and the country’s education system. It wasn’t even half-time and the score was Russian Communism 3, The Free World 0.

The John Kennedy-inspired Moon landing at the end of the 60s decisively altered the balance.

But American high tech did not have all the answers in what had been a space game of two halves. When NASA began the launch of astronauts into space, they found out that pens wouldn’t work at zero gravity because ink won’t flow down to the writing surface. To solve this problem, it took them one decade and $12 million.

They developed a pen that worked at zero gravity, upside down, underwater, in practically any surface including crystal and in a temperature range from below freezing to over 300 degrees C.   

 And what did the Russians do?  They used a pencil.

History does not record whether it was a red one, but  the writing stick has a long and ueful history. According to Wikipaedia the archetypal pencil was probably the stylus, which was a thin metal stick, often made from lead and used for scratching in papyrus. The word pencil comes from the Latin word pencillus which means “little tail”.

In the 16th century an enormous deposit of graphite was discovered in Cumbria, England. The locals found that it was very useful for marking sheep. This particular deposit of graphite was extremely pure and solid, and it could easily be sawn into sticks. This remains the only large scale deposit of graphite ever found in this solid form. Chemistry was in its infancy and the substance was thought, erroneously, to be a form of lead. There was, in fact, no lead in any pencils.

The modern digital age, with its hyperactive collective thumb, eschews the pencil, but my generation can still recall the look, feel (and taste) of a coveted HB (“H” for hard and “B” for black , our tool of choice for literacy development. The Deluxe model had a rubber attached as the delete option.

If pushed we can also almost remember the Latin for Bulwer-Lytton’s penmanship adage: Calamvs Gladio Fortior!


A fascinating history of the pencil and some notable pencil users:

More pencil jottings:

Past non-parsed paragraphs from the Bulwer-Lytton Awards:

Digitised Graphics: Snoopy vs. The Red Baron (Snoopy’s Christmas) (CC)


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