OK, credit where it’s due: The Fisher Space Pen was one of those brilliant little byproducts of the American space program like Tang and cordless drills. With its pressurized ink cartridge that could write on any surface from any angle, it did for ballpoint pens what the iPhone did for cell phones.
But that was more than 40 years ago.
The Fisher Space Pen is no longer the only ballpoint capable of functioning under less-than-ideal conditions. A number of other pens also can make that claim, chief among them the handy Uni-ball Power Tank RT that writes a neat, clean .4mm line.
Is it a better choice than the Fisher? We think so.
First, a little background for those who aren’t familiar with the Fisher.
NASA was trying to find a reliable writing instrument for astronauts in the early ’60s. Ballpoint pens would not work because they relied on gravity to feed ink to the ball and then onto paper. Pencils were encased in wood, which was flammable, a dangerous potential in space. NASA tried buying mechanical pencils, but ended up paying $142 each, which did not sit well with the public.
Paul Fisher already had succeeded in inventing a universal ballpoint pen refill that fit most of the popular brands then on the market. He went to work on a pen that would perform in the unique conditions of space. That meant it had to function by some means other than gravity and had to withstand extremes of heat and cold.
His company reportedly spent $1 million on research, and the result was the Space Pen. By adding gas pressure to the cartridge and using low-viscosity ink, Fisher created a pen that could write underwater, in zero gravity, and in temperature ranges from -45C to 204C.
NASA scientists put the pens through testing and, in 1967, agreed to buy 100 of them for the Apollo space mission.
With that purchase, Fisher pens became famous. He began selling them to the public, and they were immensely popular. The pens were the first product ever sold from space – via QVC – and became the subject of a Seinfeld episode. Although Fisher died in 2006, his company continues and offers a whole range of space pens.
And no doubt about it, they’re neat pens. Take a look at this video of a reviewer using it to write underwater.
But the Power Tank by Uni-ball also has a pressurized ink cartridge and is capable of writing on wet or dry surfaces and from any angle, including upside down. It, too, is resistant to temperature extremes and perform well under adverse conditions. This pen, as well, uses low-viscosity Uni Super Ink (which is waterproof and fade- and tamper-resistant.) And, while Uni-ball makes no claim the pens can write underwater, there doesn’t seem to be any reason they shouldn’t.
The OfficeSupplyGeek wrote an outstanding review of the Power Tank last year. He found that the pen wrote equally well right-side up, upside down and at low temperatures. He even conducted an experiment that involved putting the pen in a tube of water, freezing it and then seeing how well it would write. Frozen, the pen managed to write about as well as it had at room temperature.
Reviewers on Amazon.com also give the pen high marks for performance, including this one:
These are great all-weather pens. I use them at home and work, but I initially got them for geocaching. I needed something that could withstand cold temperatures as well as wet conditions. The old "space" pens came to mind, but they had lots of problems and were clunky. These seemed to have fixed all those problems. My pen works when other pens, and even pencils, have failed. Oh, yeah, they do write upside down and for long periods when writing on a pad against a wall (i.e., vertically).
Of course, the Power Tanks don’t have sleek metal bodies and aren’t precision machined like the Fishers. Instead, the retractable pens are made of tough plastic, have comfortable rubber grips and are translucent so you can gauge when you need a refill.
But you want to know the main difference in the pens? Cost.
You’ll spend almost £20 for a Fisher Space Pen. A Power Tank will cost you less than £2.
There may be something to owning a pen with the storied history of the Fisher. And the pens do look good, especially the original astronaut pen and the bullet pen, which fits as neatly into a pants pocket as any pen could. Is that worth the extra money, though?
Not really, especially given how often people lose their pens. Most of us just want a good, reliable pen that fits well in our hands and will do its job even in difficult conditions. If it’s got a little style, all the better. The Power Tank does everything we want it to do, for about a tenth of the price.
You just can’t beat that.
What do you think, readers?