From Quill To Stylus, The Evolution Of The Pen

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From disposable plastic pens that cost mere pence to high-tech pens that link paper notepads to apps, the pen has changed immensely over the years. And as touchscreen technology becomes increasingly popular, the stylus has become the gadget fan’s alternative to the traditional pen.

But while, styluses and pens with on-board gadgetry are popular, the traditional pen isn’t dead yet – far from it. High-end pens are still considered to be a status symbol, which is perhaps no surprise considering their long and productive history.

History of the pen

As with many inventions, pens can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians who forged reed pens from sea rushes to write on papyrus scrolls. Meanwhile, styluses crafted from reeds were first used by the ancient Mesopotamians to ‘write’ on clay tablets.

Reed pens were gradually replaced by feather quills around the 7th Century and quill pens were also famously used to produce some of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Pens with metal nibs weren’t mass produced until the 1800s although they had first been used long before, with a copper nib reportedly found in the ruins at Pompeii.

Quill pens and a copy of the 1774 Continental Association agreement on display in CarpentersÆ Hall in Independence National Historical Park.

Romanian student Petrache Poenaru invented the fountain pen which was patented by the French government in 1827, while the first patent for a ballpoint pen was issued in 1888.

Hungarian newspaper editor László Bíró, whose named has since become synonymous with pens, first filed a patent in 1938. Felt-tipped pen was invented in the 1960s in Japan, while rollerball pens in followed in the 1970s.

What makes a good pen?

There’s no one answer to the question ‘what makes a good pen’, simply because there are several different types – the most traditional variants are the ballpoint, rollerball, fountain and marker pens. However, the Parker Pen Company attempts to sum it up, explaining that:

“A good pen is a mark of quality and style – unrivalled aesthetics, technical innovation and the care of advanced and skilled craftsmanship are all key factors when qualifying the ideal pen.

“The most important element in the making of a pen is its ‘engine,’ which includes the finely sharpened nib and its ink feed system regulating the flow of the ink.”

Many people prefer using fountain pens as they require no pressure to write, unlike ballpoints.

Pens are generally made from either a lightweight metal or plastic and while the former is more robust, it’s also heavier on the hand. Nibs can be made from a variety of materials from steel to gold and titanium.

Even before touchscreen styluses emerged, there has always been plenty of innovation when it comes to pens. In 1965, the Fisher Space Pen Company produced the first ‘zero gravity’ pen, designed to work in space, under water, on wet paper and at any angle.

Fisher developed the pen independent of the space programme, but after NASA tested it in space, the US space administration reportedly bought up around 400 pens to use on the Apollo missions. Legend has it that the Soviets simply used a pencil.

You can read the rest of the article at The Huffington Post UK (originally published 10 December 2014).

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The Great British Take-Off: Brits in Space

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ESA astronaut Tim Peake

Next year Tim Peake, a former Major in the British Army Air Corps, will be Britain’s first official astronaut to make it into space. Selected by the European Space Agency (ESA), Peake will fly to the International Space Station (ISS) where he’ll spend six months carrying out experiments on the ESA’s Columbus laboratory module.

While he’ll be our first official astronaut, he won’t be the first Briton in space – that honour goes to Helen Sharman, a chemist who was selected from 13,000 hopefuls for Project Juno – a joint mission between the Soviet Union and a consortium of British companies in 1991. Sharman was also the first woman aboard the Mir space station.

A handful of Brits – albeit ones with American citizenship – flew missions aboard Nasa’s space shuttle programme before its retirement in 2011, while two other astronauts with dual nationality took self-funded flights on the Russian Soyuz. Bizarrely, English soprano Sarah Brightman is in training for a privately funded seat aboard the Soyuz in 2015.

However, Peake is the first to boldly go where just a handful of Brits have gone before as part of an official astronaut corps and is due to blast off on Soyuz TMA-19M in November 2015 as part of Expedition 46, alongside Russian Commander Yuri Malenchenko and Nasa’s Timothy Kopra.

As a home-grown space adventurer, clearly Peake has the potential to become something of a celebrity, in a similar vein to Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield), whose Tweets from the ISS managed to captivate the Twitterverse and make being an astronaut look like just about the best thing in the world (and beyond).

Peake has already made a great start as poster boy for the British space contingent on Twitter (@astro_timpeake) and Flickr and he hasn’t even left the planet yet.

Naturally, we’re all hoping that the ESA has already been in touch with David Bowie to enable Peake to do a rendition of Space Oddity on the ISS, just as Hadfield did. However, he’s already cast doubt on our dreams, quipping:

“I do play the guitar, but very badly, and I wouldn’t inflict my singing on anybody.”

Come on, Tim!

While he might not be blessing us with his vocal talents (or lack thereof) any time soon, Peake has teamed up with maverick chef Heston Blumenthal to launch the Great British Space Dinner – a competition to invent a “tasty meal with a hint of Britishness” to offer a cosy slice of home while he’s on the space station.????????????????????????????????

And while we’re on the subject of taste, it’s no secret that Lavazza recently unveiled the first coffee machine designed for use in space – the superbly named ISSpresso – which will make its way to the ISS in November 2014. But wouldn’t Brit Peake prefer a nice cup of tea?

The Sussex-born spaceman sets the record straight:

“Tea in the morning, and a cup of coffee at 11 o’clock”.

He didn’t say what biscuits he prefers with his cuppa, but his quintessentially British precision when it comes to hot beverage timetables is admirable.

Space-friendly coffee machines aside, the list of innovations that filter through from space exploration programmes to consumers is, well, astronomical.

From new ways of improving commercial flight safety and superconductors that enable lower cost MRI scanners, to producing more realistic terrains in video games and making your car seats more comfy – it’s almost certain that you will have benefitted from these advances in some way.

Nasa estimates that over the last ten years alone, its spinoff innovations have created 18,000 jobs, reduced costs by $4.9bn, generated $5.1bn and saved 444,000 lives.

But if spaceflight is so beneficial to us down on Earth, then why has the UK never made any plans to put together a British astronaut corps? As you can probably guess, it all comes down to cost – with a manned spaceflight programme deemed prohibitively expensive for our frugal country’s wallet.

However, while the UK Space Agency doesn’t have its own crew of astronauts, it is a member of the ESA, providing a rather modest 6% of the European collective’s budget (although it doesn’t supply any direct funding for the ISS).Tim Peake

Further adding to Blighty’s space credentials, the UK Space Agency recently announced the eight coastal locations – six of which are in Scotland – that are under consideration to become the UK’s first spaceport. Due to open by 2018, the first site would provide a base for satellite launches as well as defence and military applications. It could also provide a lift-off point for space tourism companies like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

Of all the suggested sites, my personal preference for a ‘local’ spaceport would have to be Glasgow Prestwick Airport, purely as it was the only place where Elvis Presley ever set foot in the UK thanks to a refueling stop en route from his army service in Germany. Just imagine the crossover merchandise possibilities in the gift shop.

In the meantime, Tim Peake will be flying the flag for the UK, and hopefully learning the chords to Space Oddity, if only because the lyric “Ground control to Major Tim…” is simply too good to waste.

Let’s all raise our bone china teacups to the Great British Take-Off.

This article was originally published on 17 July 2014 on The Huffington Post UK.

Buran: The forgotten Soviet space shuttle

Buran HPIt’s been just over two years since Nasa mothballed the Space Shuttle, but did you know that the Soviet Union built an almost identical shuttle known as Buran?

Development on Buran (‘snowstorm’ in Russian) started in 1974, primarily for defence purposes in response to the perceived military threat posed by the United States’ shuttle programme.

With the US winning the race to put the first man on the moon, it’s easy to forget that it was the Soviet Union that managed to get the first man into space (although Yuri Gagarin beat Alan Shepard by just a matter of weeks).

In 1963, the USSR’s Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space – a milestone which, wasn’t met by the US until 1983, courtesy of the late Sally Ride. However, with Buran, it was the Americans that led the way, with the Soviets following their lead.

The Buran, superficially at least, was practically identical to Nasa‘s shuttle, almost certainly as a result of Cold War espionage. Having said that, the US didn’t make things particularly difficult for the KGB – all of the technology that went into the space shuttle programme was, inexplicably, unclassified and open to anyone.

The ‘shared’ data from the US meant that Buran was very similar to the American vehicle in terms of size and shape. However, with a strong heritage in space flight, the Soviets had also been working on a form of reusable space plane as far back as the 1960s, so they also had plenty of their own homegrown tech to deploy for Buran. The main difference was that Buran’s main engines were housed in the standalone Energia launch vehicle, rather than on the shuttle itself.

STS-Buran-petitThe propellant used in both the boosters and the shuttles’ manoeuvring systems was also different, and the thermal protection tiles were laid out differently on the two vehicles. The Buran was designed with an automatic landing system, which was only later fitted (and never used) on Nasa’s shuttle as a precautionary measure. The Soviet shuttle was designed to take a maximum crew of ten, as opposed to the space shuttle’s seven and crucially, the Soviet version was fitted with ejector seats.

The USSR built a total of eight test models and five production models and on 15 November 1988, the first flight-ready Buran shuttle was launched from the famous Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Although the flight was unmanned, the shuttle spent three hours in space and made two orbits of the Earth before landing safely.

The timing of the Buran’s 1988 maiden flight was unfortunate. With Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika reforms in full swing, the Soviet Union was crumbling, with the fall of the Berlin Wall only a year away. The state and its economy eventually collapsed in 1991, with the Buran programme being officially cancelled in 1993 by President Boris Yeltsin, a year before the first planned flight with a crew on board.

While the US may have won the shuttle race, with the programme ceased after 30 years of service, US astronauts have had to hitch lifts to the International Space Station (ISS)aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft – at around $63million a seat.

While both the Buran, and the more successful Space Shuttle both led to technical advances for their respective space agencies, many of which are now in commercial use, the orbiters themselves now live out their days as museum exhibits.

Buran_Launchpad_12_medNasa’s four remaining shuttles (including test vehicle Enterprise) are spread out at various museums across the US. Sadly, the only Buran that actually made it to space – OK-1K1 – was destroyed in a hangar collapse in 2002.

Test vehicle OK-GL1 is displayed at the Technik Museum Speyer in Germany, while another test unit is displayed in Moscow’s Gorky Park, serving as a tourist attraction and a relic of the Soviet era.

Having made it my mission to see all of Nasa’s decommissioned space shuttles – I’ve already ticked off Enterprise, Discovery and Columbia (the last of which I saw on the launch pad ten years before its tragic demise) – Buran has now been added to the list. Next stop, Gorky Park.

For some great images, head over to russianspaceweb.com and buran.su

This article was originally published on 30 July 2013 on The Huffington Post UK.

Are the people of Seoul worried about the nuclear threat from North Korea?

Huff Post SeoulGoing on a press trip to Seoul just days after North Korean autocrat Kim Jong-Un threatened to carry out nuclear attacks on South Korea, Japan and the US wasn’t exactly ideal timing.

But after bombarding the poor PR company in charge of the trip with a barrage of questions, placating worried parents and notifying the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of my travel plans, I flew out to Gangnam with a group of UK tech journalists.

While spending much of our time checking out LG’s latest innovations and being shown the sights of Seoul, it was hard to ignore the heightened tensions with the neighbour state.

The annual military exercises that take place between the US and South Korean forces around this time always tend to raise tensions, with North Korea viewing the training drills as a practice run for invasion.

However, this year the verbal response from the north of the peninsula has stepped up a gear, with a “state of war” being declared.

It was feared that North Korea may take the 101st birthday of the founding father Kim Il Sung as an opportunity for its threatened missile launch or perhaps something more sinister. However, the anniversary came and went without incident, except for some isolated protests in Seoul where South Korean activists burnt effigies of the Kim family in the streets.

With Seoul only an hour or two’s drive away from the border, are the inhabitants of the densely populated metropolis worried about an imminent nuclear missile strike from their neighbours? Not a bit, it would seem.

Obviously it would be unwise for the South Korean government to ignore the rhetoric from Pyongyang, with defence minister Kim Kwan-Jin stating that Seoul is fully prepared for an attack. However, while the authorities are acting with due caution, the general population of Seoul appears to be paying the young despot’s threats very little heed indeed.

It would probably be fair to say that the news of YouTube sensation Psy’s follow-up single to Gangnam Style has generated more buzz here than the bellicose threats from the fledgling dictator. You can hear the Korean rapper’s work being played constantly in bars and shops across the city and we were also treated to his new video several times by our hosts. There are even Gangnam Style socks for sale in the tourist-trap souvenir shops (yes, reader, I bought them).

Questions about the current tensions on the peninsula are generally met by the locals with a friendly chuckle and a reassurance that we’ll be perfectly safe.

While US President Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-hye are due to meet in Washington DC on 7 May to hammer out a solution, the local population in Seoul appears to be astoundingly nonplussed about the threats, having heard a lot of the same in the past.

Writing in the Korea Times, columnist Donald Kirk said:

On the streets of Seoul, no one is talking about war or looking for bomb shelters. Armageddon, Koreans believe, is not at hand. The mood is all for peace and dialogue. The question remains where, how, on what terms and to what end.

Kirk hits the nail on the head. The city is as busy as you’d expect a bustling conurbation to be. In fact, many of the streets are currently lined with strings of colourful lanterns to celebrate the 2,576th birthday of Buddha on 17 May while the blooming cherry blossom trees add an extra dash of defiant cheerfulness.

Tourist hotspots, such as Gyeongbokgung Palace are still very busy, although, most of the tourists there appear to be Korean and Chinese, with very few Westerners around. We were told that foreign visitor numbers are down since last year, most likely as a result of the ongoing tensions.

City nightlife still appears to be in full swing, although US soldiers stationed in South Korea are currently on curfew, cutting the number of Westerners out on the streets late at night.

There is no visible military presence in central Seoul at all, although we did spot a lone army helicopter hovering above the city. It wasn’t until we ventured to Paju, just 16km from the border that we spotted soldiers at a South Korean army base. Most of the tiny guard huts running along the length of the border appeared to be empty – we only spotted one that was manned.

Our tour guide compared the country’s current situation to that in Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall – in the sense of a country temporarily divided. Rather than concentrating on the current tensions and expecting another Korean war, there is much talk of inevitable reunification in the not-too-distant future.

In the meantime, the good folk of Seoul carry on with their daily lives. Maybe if Kim Jong-Un uploaded a record-breaking YouTube video with a memorable dance routine, they’d take more notice of his increasingly desperate attempts to cement his place in history.

This article was originally published on 22 April 2013 on The Huffington Post UK.