The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

A Radioactive Pen in Your Pocket? Sure!

In an era of atomic cars and atomic planes, Parker’s 1958 Atomic Pen probably seemed like a good idea

2 min read
Photo of Parker pen by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

In 1958, Parker Pen designer Walter Bieger developed a series of “Dream Pens,” three of which the company later supplied to Stanley Kubrick to be used as props in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Parker was one of several companies—including Bell Labs, General Electric, General Motors, IBM, and RCA—contacted by Kubrick for samples of what they thought they might have on the market in several decades. When the movie premiered in 1968, the Atomic Pen pictured above was featured floating in microgravity, an effect achieved by sticking the pen to a sheet of glass that was slowly rotated in front of the camera.

The Atomic Pen’s design called for a tiny packet of radioactive isotopes, which would heat the ink to produce a selectable range of line densities. Perhaps understandably, no production units were ever made.

While Parker’s other Dream Pens didn’t make it into the film, the company did use them extensively for promotion in movie theaters, department stores, and supermarkets, displaying the company’s retail products alongside the concepts as “pens of today and tomorrow.”

imgParker Pen promoted its retail pens alongside its Dream Pens as the “pens of today and tomorrow.”Photo: Parker Archives

Like the Atomic Pen, the other concept pens had fanciful functionality. The Hydrograph would absorb nitrogen from the air and chemically combine it, somehow, to make fluid ink. The Chromatic would, at the touch of a button, mix together writing fluids to produce a wide range of colors and shades. The Solaris, powered by tiny solar cells, would burn an impression directly into the paper. And the Robo-Pen could take dictation and then automatically write out the text, with settings on the pen’s keyboard for selecting the style of penmanship, language, margin size, and ink color.

Parker informed customers that it would be at least two generations before the company would be taking any orders, but it promised that these dream pens would be “hot-selling items in space stations at the turn of the century.” Exactly which century, the company didn’t specify.

Special thanks to the Parker Archives and Tony Fischier at Parkerpens.net for research assistance.

This article appears in the November 2016 print issue as “A Pen for the Atomic Age.”

Part of a continuing series looking at old photographs that embrace the boundless potential of technology, with unintentionally hilarious effect.

The Conversation (0)

How the Graphical User Interface Was Invented

Three decades of UI research came together in the mice, windows, and icons used today

18 min read
Horizontal
Stylized drawing of a desktop computer with mouse and keyboard, on the screen are windows, Icons, and menus
Getty Images/IEEE Spectrum
DarkGray

Mice, windows, icons, and menus: these are the ingredients of computer interfaces designed to be easy to grasp, simplicity itself to use, and straightforward to describe. The mouse is a pointer. Windows divide up the screen. Icons symbolize application programs and data. Menus list choices of action.

But the development of today’s graphical user interface was anything but simple. It took some 30 years of effort by engineers and computer scientists in universities, government laboratories, and corporate research groups, piggybacking on each other’s work, trying new ideas, repeating each other’s mistakes.

Keep Reading ↓Show less
{"imageShortcodeIds":[]}