The Write Stuff
By Chuck Ray | Posted: 05/15/2013 2:42PM
Judging by tone of the emails in my inbox last week, passions are running high. Most were about stuff non-related to wood, unless I want to write about gun stocks. Perhaps I'll get a guest blogger to write about that; I know several gunsmiths who are amazing with the quality of their stocks.
But there was one letter, one of those chain things that never die, forwarded to me by Go Wood reader Tom O. that tweaked my interest, and I had to check it out. Here's the message (why are they always in BOLD and ALL CAPS?)
WHEN NASA FIRST STARTED SENDING UP ASTRONAUTS, THEY QUICKLY DISCOVERED THAT BALL-POINT PENS WOULD NOT WORK IN ZERO GRAVITY. TO COMBAT THIS PROBLEM, NASA SCIENTISTS SPENT A DECADE AND $12 MILLION DEVELOPING A PEN THAT WRITES IN ZERO GRAVITY, UPSIDE DOWN, ON ALMOST ANY SURFACE INCLUDING GLASS AND AT TEMPERATURES RANGING FROM BELOW FREEZING TO OVER 300 C.
THE RUSSIANS USED A PENCIL.
ENJOY PAYING YOUR TAXES, THEY’RE DUE AGAIN!
Calocedrus decurrens Now, unlike the radical Tom O. (you know the IRS is reading your emails, don't you, Tom?), I enjoy doing my patriotic duty by overpaying my "fair share" to the ruling, uh, taxing authorities. So I didn't find it humorous to poke fun at or slander our fine Space Administration. The truth is that the above story is another of those internet "urban legends" that has a tiny kernel of truth and a whole lot of exaggeration. From the urban myth debunking website Snopes.com we learn that a "space pen" was in fact developed, but by a private entrepreneur at the cost of $1 million, not $12 million, and that he ultimately sold 400 of the space pens to NASA for $2.95 apiece. Not a bad deal.
But my initial reaction to the story was not outrage at taxes, or even dubious curiosity at the supposed efficiency of Russian space engineers over American engineers. I, of course, was drawn to the pencil.
Haven't you ever wondered how such a thing was ever invented? Or how they get that lead (graphite/clay, really) in there?
...Back sometime before the year 1565, in a remote northwestern corner of England, some local sheep herders, gathering up their sheep after a torrential downpour, discovered an outcropping of a dark mineral that blackened their skin and clothing as they climbed across it. This outcrop turned out to be the largest deposit of pure graphite found anywhere in the world, and it remains so to this day.
Shepherds being a thoughtful breed, they thought of using the dark, greasy stones to mark their sheep inventory. No use counting sheep if you can't mark them when they're counted, right?
Within a hundred years, and a lot of counted sheep, smart folks began to discover other uses for the mineral, which was called "plumbago" at the time. One of these smart people was a certain Kaspar Faber, a cabinet maker who figured out how to make a clean, wooden holder for the messy ore.
About the Author
Chuck RayDr. Charles D. “Chuck” Ray is Associate Professor of Wood Operations Research at Pennsylvania State University. His specialty is in the area of operations research, specifically those operational issues that confront the majority of the wood products sector. He previously spent 15 years in research and quality management for two large building products corporations, Temple-Inland Forest Products and Louisiana-Pacific. Ray is the sixth generation of his family to work in the sawmill industry, the Ray Brothers Lumber Company, established in East Texas before the turn of the last century. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @ChuckDRay. He maintains an Extension website for Penn State at http://extension.psu.edu/woodpro and also writes a blog on all wood issues called Go Wood which can be found at http://gowood.blogspot.com.