By all accounts the crowds were buzzing with excitement one day in late October 1945 at Gimbels department store, located in Manhattan near the Empire State Building, to see the shiny new “Reynolds Rocket”. With a silver-plated steel body and refillable chamber, an estimated five thousand people showed up on the day it debuted for the chance to lay down $12.50 (over $200 in 2022 dollars) to get their hands on one.
American businessman Milton Reynolds had first seen the idea on a trip to Argentina. In the 1930s, fountain pens were essentially 100% of the writing pen market. A fountain pen that held a refillable reservoir of ink was patented in 1884 and the first ballpoint pen in 1888. But both kinds were prone to leaking.
Brothers László and Georg Bíró realized that it was the ink itself that needed a rethink. At the Budapest International Fair in 1931, they presented a ballpoint pen that did not leak. Unlike previous ballpoints, the Bíró model used newspaper ink, which was more viscous than the pen inks of the time, but which also dried quickly, so it did not smudge after being applied to paper.
Reynolds copied the brothers’ idea, modifying it just enough to avoid patent issues, and began selling his luxury, refillable ballpoint pens in the US. In an America ready to splurge after years of scrimping during the war, the Rocket became the first commercially successful ballpoint pen and made Reynolds wealthy. According to Time magazine, Gimbels alone sold more than $5 million worth in the first six months.
Reynolds sold his pen company, but had numerous other interests. He set an around-the-world airplane flying record, wrote a book about his travels in South America, and became one of the first investors in Syntex, a Mexican company that developed the oral contraceptive pill that revolutionized birth control starting in the 1960s.
But if you had to pinpoint the peak of the glory days of the luxury, silver-plated pen, that day at Gimbels in late October 1945 when the Reynolds Rocket debuted is a good choice because, also in the year 1945, the Bíró brothers sold the rights for their idea to Italian-born Frenchman Marcel Bich. And Bich had radically different ideas for what a ballpoint pen could be.
A Convergence of Technologies
In a land devastated by war, Marcel Bich knew there would be no crowds eagerly waiting with hands full of money to buy luxury items of any kind. So he began developing a ballpoint pen that was low cost due to a convergence of technologies that were only first possible just after World War II. He made the pen body and ink reservoir from transparent plastics, instead of silver, and used metals in the writing tip that workers at the time were extremely familiar with, including brass and stainless steel.
In 1950, Bich introduced the ‘Bic Cristal’ pen in Europe for a price of about 18 US cents – a tiny fraction of the cost of Reynolds’ Rocket – and by 1953 was selling forty million of them per year. According to Steven Schnaars in Managing Imitation Strategies: How Later Entrants Seize Markets from Pioneers, “by the late 1950s Bic held an astonishing 70 percent of the European ballpoint market.”
This is part of the ‘pattern of disruption’ we have noted repeatedly: an industry outsider delivers a new product to the market that, in the case of the Bic Cristal, delivers equal or better performance at lower cost, and then that new product dominates the market within a decade or two.
Schnaars says plastic disposable Cristal pens from an industry outsider like Bich were “an idea that horrified the industry leaders” but that “low-priced pens forever changed the pen industry. They reconfigured the product from an expensive, almost jewelry-like, purchase, to an incidental disposable. Bic was more than successful. In fact, its entry relegated the industry giants – Parker, Sheaffer and especially Waterman – to the now much smaller high end of the market.”
The Bic Cristal had sold 100 billion copies by late 2006, more than a dozen for every person currently on Earth. This was not a ‘one-for-one’ disruption – the number of plastic disposable pens per person today far exceeds the highest number of fountain pens or luxury ballpoints at any point in history.
And this revolution forced a complete rethink of the act of writing. According to David Sax, the author of The Revenge of Analog, “the ballpoint pen was the equivalent of today’s smartphone. Before then, writing was a stationary act that had to be done in a certain environment, on a certain kind of desk, with all these other things to hand that allowed you to write.” The fountain pen required its own writing space, a desk with all the accoutrements of writing, not just the pen itself but also an inkwell and, because the pen was leak-prone, a desk blotter. But after the revolution, anyone could carry a pen in their pocket, write whenever they needed to, and not be upset if their pen got lost or stolen.
But these were not the only things the ballpoint pen would revolutionize. In the next post, we will see how Milton Reynolds’ investment money, which he earned from selling pens, radically expanded the pen market, changing much of Western society in the process.
This is Part 8 in our series ‘The Pattern of Disruption’. Post 9, ‘Oral Contraception Doubled the Sales of Ballpoint Pens’, is here. Part 1 is available here.