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  • Writer's pictureRich Honiball

Today in Brand History: The Ballpoint Pen

In 1945, the first ballpoint pen was sold, manufactured by Reynolds International Pen Company in the US, was first sold. Debuting at Gimbels Department Store in NYC for $12.50 each (which would be around $200 today), the "Reynolds Rocket" became an instant commercial success. But for those of you who think that the pen is mightier than the sword, here is some proof for you...

The first patent for a ballpoint pen was issued to John Loud fifty seven years earlier. His attempt was a writing instrument that would be able to write on rough surfaces, like wood or leather, which fountain pens could not. It didn't work for mainstream purposes like writing on paper, so without being commercially viable, he gave up and the patent eventually lapsed.

Enter Hungarian newspaper editor, Laszlo Biro (who later became an Argentinian citizen), who started working on a similar concept when he noticed that newspaper ink dried quickly, leaving paper smudge free. Biro filed for a British patent on June 15, 1938 for his version of an improved ballpoint pen. In 1941, he and a business partner fled Nazi Germany and moved to Argentina, forming "Biro Pens of Argentina" and filed for a new patent in 1943. The new design was known and sold as the "Birome." Interestingly, they also licensed the technology to Miles Aircraft in Britain for use by the Royal Air Force (where it was known as the "Biro"), who wanted it because it was far more versatile at high altitudes than fountain pens. Following WWII, Biro licensed the rights to their patent to the Eversharp Co (maker of mechanical pencils) and Eberhard Faber Co for manufacturing and sales in the US with an intended launch of 1945.

But where did Reynolds come from. Well, it turns out that American entrepreneur Milton Reynolds came across a Birome pen while on a business trip to Argentina and was impressed enough that he purchased a few of them, and upon returning to the US he founded Reynolds Internal Pen Company. He bypassed the patent by making some design alterations and was able to just beat the American made Birome pen to market. For the initial launch at Gimbels, he manufactured 50,000 pens and sold 30,000 within the first few days (I am still working to validate those numbers...there may be one too many zeros). Reynolds was a rather odd individual with as many failures as successes, from used tires to prefabricated houses, "talking" promotional retail signs, just to name a few.

Never heard of Reynolds or Eversharp ball point pens? That's because by 1946, the market was already saturated after the launch of the two pen and by the early 1950's, Reynolds folded and Eversharp went on to be acquired by Parker Pen in late 1950's. Parker Pen, you have heard of.

Founded by George Safford Parker in 1888, Parker became a leader in writing instruments from the 1920's to the 1960's, creating a number of improvements and innovations in both fountain pens and inks. In 1954, Parker released their first ballpoint pen, the "Parker Jotter", which went on to sell over 750 million units over its history. It seems that after Reynolds folded and Parker acquired Eversharp, the market expanded.

Then there is Paper Mate. In 1941, Patrick Frawley acquired a defunct ballpoint pen parts manufacturer that had defaulted on its loans. By 1949, the Frawley Pen Company had developed an ink that dried instantly and the ballpoint pen that delivered that ink was called "The Paper Mate." The Frawley Pen Company was quickly purchased by The Gillette Company in 1955, forming the Paper Mate Division. Having already purchased Waterman and Liquid Paper in later years, Gillette would eventually purchase the Parker Pen Company in 1993 and in 2000, they sold the entire division to Newell Rubbermaid.

But what about Laszlo Biro, the man who patented the modern day ballpoint pen? Let's go back to 1942, when Marcel Bich and his partner, Edouard Buffard, started a business making pen holders and pencil cases in the Paris suburb of Clichy. Bich later bought the original patent from Biro and the "Bic Cristal" ballpoint pen became the company's first commercial product in 1950. While the leading brand in the “over-a-dollar” pen market was made by the Paper Mate pen company (remember, purchased in 1955 by Gillette), Bic began to see success in the 1960's by promoting that their cheaper pens would write "First Time, Every Time." To prove that their 29¢ pen would perform as well as more expensive pens, commercials showed Bic pens still working after being drilled through wallboard, shot from guns, fire-blasted, and strapped to the feet of ice skaters. Bic and Gillette would go on to battle for market share in pens, disposable razors, and lighters, and story in and of itself.


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