September 25, 2011 Leave a comment
“I, Pencil“, written by Leonard E. Read some 50 years ago, has been described as an essay which “many first-time readers never see the world quite the same again” after reading. It takes just a few minutes to read, and here is a flavour:
I am a lead pencil—the ordinary wooden pencil familiar to all boys and girls and adults who can read and write.
Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me … millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others.
It’s a simple story implying that economies cannot be centrally planned, yet as Milton Friedman wrote:
I know of no other piece of literature that so succinctly, persuasively, and effectively illustrates the meaning of both Adam Smith’s invisible hand—the possibility of cooperation without coercion—and Friedrich Hayek’s emphasis on the importance of dispersed knowledge and the role of the price system in communicating information that “will make the individuals do the desirable things without anyone having to tell them what to do.”
And a random but related note on the urban legend that America spent millions of dollars designing a space pen that would work in a zero gravity vacuum, whereas the Russians used a pencil:
Alas, for all its appeal and plausibility, this is not true. Initially, astronauts and cosmonauts were both equipped with pencils, but there were problems: if a piece of lead broke off, for example, it could float into someone’s eye or nose. A pen was needed, one that would defy gravity, write in extreme heat or cold, and be leak proof: blobs of ink floating around the cabin would be more perilous than a stray pencil lead. A long-time pen maker named Paul C. Fisher patented the “space pen” in 1965 (which he had developed at the cost of a million dollars, at the request of but not under the auspices of NASA.) NASA bought four hundred of them at $6 each, and, after a couple of years of testing, the pens were put into space