Challenge: To make a space pen and ink. We’ll
test it by lying on our backs and writing upside down
for a long time.
This is actually a tougher test than writing in space,
because in space there is zero gravity - no force (pushes
or pulls) acting on the ink. When writing upside down
on Earth, gravity pulling down on the ink works in exactly
the opposite direction as we want the ink to flow, so
our space pen not only has to work in space, it has
to be designed to overcome Earth’s gravitational
force acting on the ink.
Strategy: Mike works on the pen design. I hit the road
to find plants that will give rich, permanent ink colours.
We’ve made inks and dyes in other Rough Science
challenges, but never in this region, nor in the desert.
Thus, it is, once again, a legitimate challenge. The
Finding appropriate plants. It is not as if there is
a map with plants marked on it. I have to go to areas
(habitats) where the specific plants I want are likely
to grow well and then hunt around. If what I’m
looking for isn’t there, I go to another location
that with similar environmental conditions and look
there. I always keep my eyes open for species I may
stumble over that I hadn’t considered but would
Extracting the chemical components of the plants that
have colour and will “stain” paper. This
usually involves boiling plants in water for anything
from 30 minutes to several hours.
Concentrating the ink. This is tougher than one would
think. Yes, boiling off water is the starting point,
but the plant components that work as inks are sometimes
so dilute in the plant that tons of plant material is
needed, so boiling takes a long, long time. Dyes don’t
have to be as concentrated, nor do they have to be thickened,
to work reasonably well, so many plants which give a
nice colour as a dye just can’t be practically
concentrated as an ink. Inks are tougher to make.
Thickening the ink without diluting the colour such
that it flows onto the paper without running all over
the paper or leaking out of the pen. Yet, the ink still
has to flow through the pen. This is a real give and
The immediate plants that come to mind are seablight,
also called inkweed, and sagebrush. Inkweed was used
by Native Americans to dye basketry materials and hair
black. I am counting on the fact that detailed basketry
painting and dyeing, as well as hair dying, require
concentrated colour. These uses suggest that I should
be able to make a decent ink out of inkweed. Inkweed
is found in dry areas with saline (salty) soils. It
is edible, but tastes quite salty, thus its other common
name of seablight. The part of the plant above ground
is boiled to make ink. The colour is strongest when
the plant is in bud or flowering.
Sagebrush is a back-up as an ink. It was used by Native
Americans as a yellow-green dye for cloth. This means
Mike and I will probably have a heck of a time concentrating
it as an ink. Plus yellow-green isn’t very dark
in the first place. There just aren’t many ink
choices around here. As I haven’t worked with
inkweed before, I’m not willing put all my eggs
in one basket. We’ll try the sagebrush, too. Sagebrush
is typically found between 5,000 and 9,000 feet above
sea level in dry areas. Its scientific name is Artemesia
tridentata. If you look at its leaves closely you can
see that they have “three teeth” (tri=three,
dentate=teeth) at their tips. Also, sagebrush is not
related to sage, which makes things quite confusing.
Sages are in the mint family. Sagebrush, on the other
hand, is in the daisy family. This is one of the reasons
common names are sometimes very misleading!
The obvious thickener is apricot mallow, also called
desert mallow. I saw it all over the place last week
as it was in flower, so it should be easy to spot with
its bright orange flowers that are the size of US quarters.
Other options for thickeners include grinding up the
seeds of plants that Native American used to make mush,
which is basically oatmeal or cream of wheat out of
plants that aren’t oats or wheat. An obvious candidate
is any one of the local buckwheats, but I’m pretty
sure they are still in flower. It will be a couple of
weeks before the flowers, if they are pollinated, develop
into fruits with seeds—and I only have days, not
weeks, to come up with a reasonably thick ink.
Results so far
As expected, inkweed was readily available in this dry,
salty region. For sagebrush, I’ll have to go up
higher in the hills. Apricot mallow is proving illusive.
It has stopped flowering, and based on the one puny
plant I found, it loses most of its leaves once its
flowered. I’ll have to hunt for this plant based
on its stem architecture and see how I do. It’s
basically like looking for lost keys based on their
Mike, in the meantime, has made two brilliant prototypes
of pens. Both are way to big to be practical, but the
science behind them is fab. One is a capillary pen that
won’t even require thickened ink. The other is
a version of the ball point pen. Who would have ever
thought we’d make a ball point pen on Rough Science.