Today, let's ask if you can recognize ullage when
you see it. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
It was a fine seminar in
Galveston about how scientists visualize nature --
all the ways we see before we understand.
When a great British art historian rose to talk
about 18th-century anatomical illustration, he by
began noting that our historic meeting building was
an artistic mish-mosh. Design, he said, is often
filled with frivolous trim and mixed statements.
He held up one of our meeting pens. "Look at the
clear plastic nose with the concentric disks in
it," he said, "Someone wanted to evoke spaceships,
and they've created design nonsense."
I've carried the pen for two months now and studied
the way ink moves through those disks. The pen
writes beautifully in any orientation. There had to
be more than met the eye in that design. I finally
called the Pilot Pen Corporation to ask about those
disks. A representative told me how they worked:
The trick is to keep just the right amount of ink
in contact with the wick that feeds the delicate
roller ball tip. The discs are baffles that balance
the forces of surface tension against air flow
resistance. Regardless of the angle, just the right
amount of ink stays in contact with the wick.
It turns out that the historian was right on target
with his idea that the pen evokes spaceships. It
really does. You see, NASA rockets carry liquid
fuels, water for the crew, coolants -- liquid that
has to be moved about with no help from gravity.
That means containers need complex baffles that let
surface tension position the liquids. NASA uses the
old English word ullage to describe
that process. Ullage once meant the empty space in
a barrel of wine. Now we use it for the empty space
in a barrel of liquid oxygen.
Of course, it also applies to the empty space in
the barrel of a pen. The irony is that forms of
this elegant technology were hidden in fine
fountain pens as long as a century ago.
So the art historian went on to show us majestic
prints from great, but little known, books on
anatomy --all kinds of original material. We saw
the astonishing skill with which visionaries saw
into, and then represented, the human body 300
But in the end, that elegant pen puts the visual
greatness of our medical forbears into perspective.
Technology is vision, and vision is subtle. Our
19th-century meeting building was an adaptation to
needs and constraints that aren't apparent today.
That pen point turns out to be a virtual labratory
in complex fluid movement. And we're reminded:
Far more design genius is all around us -- at the
tips of our fingers -- than the best of us know how
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
The conference I refer to here was called
Visualizing Science: Representations in Science
and Technology. It was arranged by the
Institute for Medical Humanities at the University of
Texas Medical Branch, and it took place at the
Tremont Hotel in Galveston from April 28 to May 1,
I am especially grateful to John Ferrara, Customer
Service Manager of Pilot Corporation of America, 60
Commerce Drive, Trumbull, CT 06611, for his
explanation of ullage in the Pilot Point "Precise"
roller ball pen. Kate Krause, UH Library, located
the Pilot Corporation sources for me.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Image courtesy of Pilot
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