On over-engineered solutions

The human desire to over-engineer solutions

On a recent trip, I had way too much time on my hands and was ambling around the usual overpriced shops in the airport terminal. There I saw a 40th anniversary “special edition” of the Space Pen. For $799.99 (plus taxes) you could get one of these pens, and some other memorabilia to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing. If you aren’t familiar with the Space Pen, you can look at learn more at the web site of the Fisher Space Pen Co.

Fisher Space Pen
Fisher Space Pen

For $800 you could get AG7-40LE – Astronaut Space Pen 40th Year Moon Landing Celebration Commemorative Pen & Box.

Part of this pen actually circled the moon!

Salient features of this revolutionary device:

  • it writes upside down
  • it writes in any language (so the Russians bought some of these :))
  • it draws pictures
  • it writes in zero gravity
  • it writes under water
  • it writes on greasy surfaces
  • it fixes broken switches on lunar modules

If you want to know about the history of this device, you can also look at NASA’s web page here. On the web page of the Fisher Space Pen Co, you can also see the promotion of the  AG7-40 – Astronaut Space Pen 40th Year Moon Landing Celebration Engraving.

While in the airport, I saw a couple of security officers rolling around on the Segway Personal Transporter. Did you know that for approximately $10,000 you could get yourself a Segway PT i2 Ferrari Limited Edition? I have no idea how much the airport paid for them but the Segway i2 is available on Amazon for about $6,000. It did strike me as silly, till I noticed three officers (a lot more athletic) riding through the terminal on Trek bicycles. That seemed a lot more reasonable. I have a bicycle like that, and it costs maybe 10% of a Segway.

I got thinking about the rampant over-engineering that was all around me, and happened upon this web page, when I did a search for Segway!

How to render the Segway Human Transporter Obsolete by Maddox.

Who would have thought of this, just add a third wheel and you could have a vehicle just as revolutionary? I thought about it some more and figured that the third wheel in Maddox’s picture is probably not the best choice; maybe it should be a wheel more like the track-ball of a mouse. That would have no resistance to turning and the contraption could do an effortless zero radius turn if required. The ball could be spring loaded and the whole thing could be on an arm that had some form of shock absorbing mechanism.

And, if we were to have done that, we would not have seen this. Bush Fails Segway Test! As an interesting aside, did you know that the high tech heart stent used for people who have bypass surgery was also invented by Dean Kamen?

We have a million ways to solve most problems. Why then do we over-engineer solutions to the point where the solution introduces more problems?

Keep it simple! There are less things that can break later.

Oh, and about that broken switch in the lunar module. Buzz Aldrin has killed that wonderful urban legend by saying he used a felt tip pen.

Buzz Aldrin still has the felt-tipped pen he used as a makeshift switch needed to fire up the engines that lifted him and fellow Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong off the moon and started their safe return to Earth nearly 40 years ago.

“The pen and the circuit breaker (switch) are in my possession because we do get a few memorabilia to kind of symbolize things that happened,” Aldrin told reporters Friday.

If Buzz Aldrin used a felt tipped pen, why do we need a Space Pen? And what exactly are we celebrating by buying a $800 pen that can’t even fix a broken switch. A pencil can write upside down (and also write in any language :)). Why do we need Segway Human Transporters in an airport when most security officers should be able to walk or ride a bicycle. Why do we build complex software products and make them bloated, unusable, incomprehensible and expensive?

That’s simple, we’re paying a homage to our overpowering desire to over-engineer solutions.

How to render the Segway Human Transporter obsolet

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