October 10, 2017
How ballpoint pens and a new world flight record saved us from applying deodorant by hand
by B. Alexandra Szerlip
The odyssey, at times hilarious, of the ballpoint pen is a window into the entrepreneurship, tenacity, keen timing, and cognizance of consumer mentality that defined the American business world at the start of the post-war period.
Invented by Hungarian Laszlo Jozsef Biro, the ballpoint first went into production in Argentina in 1943. Unlike the fountain pen, the ballpoint performed for months without refilling, used ink that dried almost instantly, and functioned at high altitudes without leaking. By the time the US Air Force got wind of it, various stateside companies were vying for the rights. Milton Reynolds found another way forward.
Reynolds was one year Norman Bel Geddes’s senior and, like him, a Midwesterner, high school dropout, and inveterate risk-taker. He had already earned and lost three fortunes before the fateful day he spotted Biro’s pens in a Buenos Aires shop. Thinking ahead to the first post-war Christmas season and a populace hungry for novelties, Reynolds—who knew nothing about the pen business—quickly devised a way to get around Biro’s patent. Working with an engineer, he reconfigured the “feed” system from one based on capillary attraction to one that worked on the principles of gravity, reinvented Biro’s ink as “SatinFlo,” and signed a deal with Gimbels Department Store for 50,000 units.
While putting the finishing touches on his gravity-fed wonder—its hand-assembled body made of war-surplus aluminum—Reynolds stumbled onto the fact that it wrote, without blurring, on a soggy cocktail napkin. A tag line was born: “It Writes Under Water!” Who, other than Jacques Cousteau, would need that? But Reynolds guessed it would get people talking.
The pen went on sale on Oct 29, 1945, three months after V-J Day, with a hefty price tag of $12.50, the present-day equivalent of about $165. In the ensuing frenzy (some 5,000 shoppers stormed Gimbels), dozens of police were dispatched to the store’s New York location. Department store buyers from all over the country began flying to meet with Reynolds. By the end of November, he had accrued a net profit, after taxes, of $541,000 (more than $6.5M today).
Unable to create enough inventory, he issued gift certificates; $100,000 worth sold the first day. Meanwhile, merchandise began disappearing: $750,000 worth of pens and pen parts were smuggled, piecemeal, out of the factory, including 200 complimentary pens custom-stamped “I Swiped This From Milton Reynolds.” By February, Reynolds’ after-tax profits had reached $1,558,607 (more than $19.5 million today).
Eversharp was the first major competitor to make its presence known, and one of the first (not counting Chrysler and its Airflow) to stage product “torture test” demonstrations — pounding a pen through a block of wood, sealing it in a vacuum jar, tossing it into a vat of dry ice. (Timex would soon make advertising history with its “Takes a Licking But Keeps on Ticking” campaign, subjecting its wristwatches to everything from paint mixers, outboard motor propellers, and dishwashers to high dives and jaunts on water skis. One TV ad featured a watch taped to the side of a dolphin.)
(Speaking of wristwatches, Dick Tracy’s Two-Way Wrist Radio, introduced to comic fans in 1946, had been inspired by the walkie-talkies—precursors of mobile phones—invented by Alfred Gross and carried by allied troops during World War II. Gross’s design, in turn, had taken its lead from a portable radio signaling system that had been designed by fellow Canadian Donald Lewes Hings. In 1964, Tracy’s device would be upgraded to a Two-Way Wrist TV.)
Reynolds rallied with a new, retractable-point pen, the “400,” and gave samples out to senators, ambassadors, double-eagle golfers, and master bowlers. Newspapers that ran stories mentioning the “400,” and comedians who worked them into jokes, were rewarded, one pen for every nod. By the summer of 1946, Reynolds’s pens were selling in thirty-seven countries, as far afield as Pitcairn Island where the locals, the cash-poor descendants of Captain Bligh’s mutineers, paid for their consignment with handwoven baskets.
By Christmas, a little over a year after the Gimbels mad dash, some 100 US manufacturers were vying for a piece of the pie. It was time for a new ploy. Reynolds invested some of his profits to buy a Douglas A-26 Invader — a light bomber that had played an important role in the Allied victory. He rechristened it the “Reynolds Bombshell,” lightened it by thirty pounds, hired two pilots, and circled the globe, beating out Howard Hughes’s 1938 record (by more than twelve hours). The stunt was timed to coincide with the debut of Reynolds’s new pen, the Reynolds Rocket — available in stratospheric blue, atomic red, radar green, jet black, chute silver, and cosmic gold, and guaranteed for twenty-five years or thirty-two miles, all for a modest $3.82. (To emphasize the pen’s longevity, Reynolds sent one to a man serving a life sentence in Sing Sing.) The plane trip cost a fortune but the publicity was enormous; President Truman received Milton at the White House. The Reynolds Rocket was followed by the Rocket Threesome—the Rocket, the Rockette, and the Stubby Rocket—debuting at $9.95.
Next up was the Bombshell, named for Reynolds’s plane — a hydra-headed, 98-cent model that wrote in both blue and red (“two pens in one!”). By 1947, it had inspired thousands of inferior rip-offs. Undaunted, Reynolds developed a gold-plated model, one that glowed in the dark, and another that doubled as a perfume dispenser. He organized an expedition to determine whether a mountain in China, said to be taller than Everest, really was — the plan was to issue a special Explorer pen if he found it.
Norman Bel Geddes was likely aware of Reynolds’s much-publicized antics, though there’s no evidence they ever met. The Reynolds Flyer was Milton’s last gasp, retailing at a modest thirty-nine cents.
An unlikely progeny was waiting in the wings. Shortly after Reynolds left the Pen Wars, an employee of the Mum deodorant company, by the name of Helen Barnett Diserens, developed a “delivery system” based on the ballpoint. Prior to that, commercial deodorants were packaged in jars and applied with the fingertips. Launched in 1952, Ban Roll-On was an overnight success that quickly went international.
B. Alexandra Szerlip is a two-time National Endowment for the Arts Writing Fellow who has contributed to the Paris Review Daily and the Believer, among other publications. She has worked in professional theater, and as a book editor, sculptor, and graphic designer. Her most recent book is The Man Who Designed the Future: Norman Bel Geddes and the Invention of Twentieth-Century America.