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What kind of a spaceman reads Playboy?When Kubrick was mapping out mankind's future in 2001: a Space Odyssey, he didn't confine himself to the Big Picture stuff about giant spacecraft, Moon colonies, and man's ultimate fate. He also took time to look at the everyday paraphernalia of 21st century life.   Not only did Kubrick depict videophones, computerised passport control stations, automated kitchens, and orbital Howard Johnsons', he also planned a few other items that didn't make it to the screen, such as the briefcase electronic office, the charge-card ring, the semi-digital watch and the deep-space edition of Playboy magazine.

One item that did make the final cut was the Parker Atomic Pen, which had a featured role during the Orion space shuttle sequence as it floated in the cabin of the spacecraft to the strains of the Blue Danube before being plucked out of the air by a stewardess wearing Velcro booties.

So what's the big deal about a pen floating in zero g with a silly brand name?  Well, unlike a lot of consumer goods, the word "atomic" was not just tacked on by the makers to give the pen a cachet of progress; it was an accurate description of how the pen worked.

According to the Parker Pen Company, the Atomic Pen had a tiny nuclear isotope in it to provide heat.  The ink, which was nearly solid at room temperature, was melted by the isotope and supplied to the nib.  By varying the output of the isotope, the user could control how thick to make the line from "barely visible to strikingly embossed," thereby adding a "third dimension to handwriting," which Parker figured was going to be a big winner in thirty three years.

Leaving out the question of whether thick ink was going to be the killer app of the 21st century, the idea of going around with a miniature radiothermal generator in your pocket seems crazy to us today.  But then, the '60s was a decade when some people were still walking about with watches illuminated by radium strapped to their wrists.  At least with a radioactive pen a man doesn't get a dose of gamma rays in a very unfortunate spot every time he goes number one. 

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