Monday, February 04, 2013

"Pick up your Pencils..."

Ford's Theater on right
It’s been years since I visited Ford’s Theater down in DC where Lincoln was shot.

The Park Service runs a very interesting museum in the basement of the theater which, among other artifacts displays John Wilkes Booth’s diary; the one he maintained while being hunted by the soldiers after the assassination. The one that 18 pages were ripped out of…by someone…and were never found.

John Wilkes Booth's Diary

But what intrigued me about the diary, other than its historical significance was the fact that it was written in pencil…and was as legible as if it had been written yesterday, instead of 150 years ago. Maybe it’s time to take another look at the lowly pencil.

Oldest known pencil
I don’t believe we had ball point pens when we were at Central. They had been invented, but I think they were too expensive (50 cents in 1952…which was $10.00 in today’s money) for most of us. I also recall how poorly those early ball points wrote…skipping…then suddenly gushing small blobs of ink….they were not to be used for documents where neatness counted. (The banks would not accept checks written with a ballpoint pen until 1950)

 But, before long they improved and experts predicted the demise of the pencil. Well, the pencil is still around and probably will be even as computers, email, instant messaging, and who knows what are all seemingly taking over.

Remember the story that went something like this:

"...NASA spent ten years and $12 million developing a pen that writes in zero gravity for use by astronauts. The pen will write upside down, underwater, on almost any surface and is functional at extremely hot and cold temperatures.

 The Russians, however, filled the need for a space writing instrument by simply using pencils."

Good story.  But it was not true.

 The government did not fund the development of the pen, it did not cost $12 million to perfect, and neither the Americans nor the Russians consider it desirable to use pencils in space. In fact, both Americans and Russians now use the space pen for their flights.

Fisher Space Pen
The famous space pen, which is still a popular product today, was developed by Paul Fisher the founder of the Fisher pen company.The company says it took Fisher about 2 years and $2 million to develop the space pen. Prior to 1967, there were no pens that worked in space so pencils were used, but there were concerns about pencil dust floating around the space capsules as well as fears that if the tip of a pencil broke off and drifted into the electronics, there would be problems.

Couch Potato
 In my opinion, the only thing that will kill the pencil is if America keeps  "idoling" and "dancing with the stars" until finally our nation becomes totally illiterate. The latest statistics reveal that 14 percent (32 million) of U.S. adults can’t read. Twenty-one percent (48 million) read below a 5th grade level. Sixty-three percent of prison inmates can’t read.

 Add eleven to 30 million (no one knows how many) people soon to become citisens who don’t even speak English to that number…and those pencils may someday soon be collector’s items.    -Ed