My endeavors here at The Perch have long focused on the Pelikan brand, their fountain pens, and related ephemera. My love for the brand and their fine writing instruments remains at the core of this site. It would be remiss of me, however, to not acknowledge the elephant in the room and continue to ignore some of the brand’s other writing instruments. Yes, it’s true! Not everything that scribbles has a nib and its high time that I paid proper attention to those ubiquitous tools that permeate our everyday lives; ballpoints. Whether they are used to jot a quick note or to write the next great novel, a ballpoint is never far from one’s grasp. Of particular interest to me is how they got their start, so we’ll be taking a close look at Pelikan’s earliest offerings. There is a lot of meat on the bone here so this post will serve as an introduction to a world that I have yet to explore on this blog. I don’t know about you, but I’m excited. Pelikan has been in the ballpoint business for the last 67 years. Their earliest models were matched to their fountain pens, produced to meet a demand but clearly of a lesser stature. Since those early days, the company’s ballpoints have spanned the gamut from cheap and disposable to models that continue to pair with their fine writing instruments, and it is the latter that I will focus on here. Put your ink and blotters away and get ready to explore Pelikan’s ballpoints.
Today’s pens can trace their roots as far back as the 4th century when the ancient Egyptians created a writing implement by taking a single piece of reed, cutting the tip at an angle, splitting its point, and then dipping that tip into some ink. The innovation that enabled putting reed to papyrus was a game changer in the history of humankind. These rudimentary instruments would be further refined over the centuries, eventually evolving into the fountain pen which, in its various forms, would rule the land for generations. While patents were being granted for fountain pen designs in the early 19th century, Pelikan didn’t come onto the fountain pen scene with their own product until 1929 when they debuted the Transparent Pelikan Fountain Pen (also more simply known as the Pelikan Fountain Pen), the forerunner of the model 100. Fountain pens would dominate the market unchallenged until the mid-1940s when their reign would begin to be tested by what promised to be a more user-friendly upstart, the ballpoint pen. It was probably not until the mid-1950s that the balance of influence and popularity began to shift in favor of the ballpoint.
A rudimentary depiction distinguishing the mechanics between a fountain pen and a ballpoint as depicted in Popular Science, Vol 169, No 3
The ballpoint concept is a simple one. Breaking down its core elements, there is an outer casing that houses a tube which contains ink of a specific viscosity. At the tip of that tube is a metal ball, a.k.a. the “ball point,” which is usually formulated from steel, brass, or tungsten carbide. The ball helps to prevent the ink from drying out and regulates its flow onto the paper. The first patent for such a design was issued in 1888 and held by the American lawyer and leather tanner, John Jacob Loud (11/2/1844 – 8/10/1916) whose invention consisted of ink placed in a tube featuring a ball at the tip. His goal was to be able to write on surfaces that a fountain pen could not such as wood and leather. The design worked as intended but the line was too coarse and not at all suited for letter writing. The concept didn’t go anywhere due to the absence of commercial viability and the patent ultimately lapsed. Still, it was John Loud’s fledgling efforts that would later pave the way for the successes of people like Bíró, Reynolds, Frawley, and Bich though this did not occur right away. Early attempts by others would continue to fail for a multitude of reasons including leaking, clogging, and uneven flow. It wasn’t until the 20th century that technology was sufficiently advanced enough to breathe new life into the design. Like all good inventions, the paradigm was born out of a frustration with the status quo, developed as a more reliable and cleaner alternative to fountain pens.
A gallery featuring a photo of John Jacob Loud and his original patent issued in 1888 (click to enlarge)
Hungarian journalist and newspaper editor László József Bíró (9/29/1899 – 10/24/1985) became irritated with the way that fountain pen ink would smudge, something he did not find to be the case with the quick drying ink used for newspaper print. With the help of his brother, a dentist and chemist, he would eventually devise a new ballpoint design that utilized a more viscous, quick drying ink that was superior to the formulations which preceded it. He was awarded a patent for his design in Britain in 1938 but, thanks to poor timing, was unable to capitalize on it. This was a turbulent time in Europe and, being Jewish, Bíró and his brother György would flee, emigrating to Argentina in 1941 at the outset of World War II. It is there that they would join up with their friend Juan Jorge Meyne and form “Bíró Pens of Argentina.” A new patent was registered and the “Birome” (a melding of the names Bíró and Meyne) would go on sale in Argentina in 1943. National Ballpoint Pen Day is celebrated in the U.S.A. on June 10 in order to commemorate the day that Lászlo and György obtained their patent. The Birome would sell well but suffered many returns due to issues related to leaking. In the post-war period, the race was on, and many manufacturers sought to secure the rights to Bíró’s ballpoint and find new markets for the fledgling product. These included Eversharp Co. and Eberhard-Faber Co. who had partnered up for the endeavor, acquiring the North and Central American rights to the Birome for half a million dollars.
A gallery featuring a photo of László Bíró and a magazine advertisement for his Stratopen Birome (click to enlarge)
What Eversharp and company did not count on was being upstaged by the Chicago based Reynold’s International Pen Company. It was American Milton Reynolds (1892 – 1976) who discovered the Birome while visiting Buenos Aires. Upon his return to the U.S.A., he disregarded most of the patents already filed and designed his own product, circumventing those who had legally secured the rights to Bíró’s design. Mr. Reynolds was able to quickly begin manufacturing a pen for the North American market, beating Eversharp to the punch. On October 29, 1945, the New York City branch of the Gimbels department store unveiled Reynolds’ ballpoint, the “Reynolds Rocket.” The product instantly found commercial success with 30,000 pens sold by the end of the first week at a price of $12.50 each. Time Magazine’s November 1945 edition described the scene thusly; “In Manhattan’s Gimbel Bros., Inc., thousands of people all but trampled one another last week to spend $12.50 each for a new fountain pen.” Being first clearly paid off, allowing Reynolds to net about $5.6 million in sales in just six month’s time. Like the models he copied, his product was imperfect and would suffer issues with leakage as evidenced by 6,000 pens being returned from the original lot of 100,000 sold by Gimbels. A rapid proliferation of pens would ensue, flooding the market, and driving down prices significantly. Models that were selling for $15.00 were reduced to $0.15, a price point at which retailers still had trouble moving product. The great ballpoint boom was subsiding. Competition during this time did bring some improvements, particularly to the ink formulation courtesy of Hungarian Fran Seech who would sell his formula to Patrick Frawley Jr. (5/26/1923 – 11/3/1998) in 1949 and likely save the nascent ballpoint industry in the process. The Frawley Pen Company would utilize that new formula in the manufacture of a little known model called the Papermate. A lot of litigation and patent lawsuits were going on at this time as well, particularly between Eversharp and Reynolds. Ultimately, The Reynold’s International Pen Company, despite their early success, would go under.
An advertisement for the Reynolds Rocket ballpoint pen which would have run later on in the pen’s production cycle
The early ballpoints followed much of the fountain pen blueprint. They were metal vessels meant to be refilled with ink from time to time. The Reynolds Rocket was famously advertised as needing to be refilled only once every two years. That made these a higher end product, a bit less sophisticated and lacking the panache of a fountain pen, but one that had only a limited market potential. People of lesser means looking for a cheaper writing solution would simply go with a pencil. With a saturated market, people would buy refills but there was little need for a person to buy more pens. Baron Marcel Bich (7/29/1914 – 5/30/1994), an Italian-born French industrialist, would change all of that. He did not invent anything novel, but he understood the market and went all in on a high volume/low-cost stratagem. Rather than viewing the ballpoint as a premium product, he conceived of a disposable item that could be cheaply produced and easily replaced at a nominal cost. The BIC was born, taking the functionality of earlier designs and coupling that with much better affordability thereby expanding accessibility. That combination proved a winning one, allowing Bich to revolutionize the market and the rest as they say is history. Today, a BIC Cristal can be had for around $0.51 and can write an average of 45,000 words before needing replacing.
A photo of Baron Marcel Bich, founder of Société Bic S.A. in 1953, more commonly known as BIC
Pelikan was relatively late to bring their own ballpoint product to market, a fact that Günther Wagner would try to whitewash by claiming it was a consequence of the company striving for “technical perfection.” The commercial success of the ballpoint which began in the United States was slower to make its way to Europe but there too they would steadily gain in popularity. Most of the major fountain pen manufacturers pivoted to add such devices to their product lines in order to meet the growing demand. Pelikan unveiled their first ballpoint products in 1955, a full ten years after the Reynolds Rocket debuted in the U.S.A. The company designated the new product group “roller” and under the new heading of Pelikan-Roller (Kugelschreiber), the 355 and 455 were the first to launch. Promotional literature from the time makes it clear just where Pelikan viewed the ballpoint in terms of the writing instrument hierarchy. The fountain pen was still king of hill, meant for handwriting, the ballpoint was for quick, hastily jotted notes, and the pencil was for light pencil writing. They touted the ballpoint’s balance in the hand and its slender tip which allowed for better visibility of the writing surface. Schreibergäte relates an interesting anecdote regarding Pelikan’s emphasis of the “roller” terminology in their advertising. One such campaign stated; “The ‘Harzer Roller’ is known all over the world, and The Pelikan Roller will soon be too!” This seemingly obscure reference today likely resonated better in the mid-twentieth century when the Harz Roller was widely known, particularly in Europe. The Harz Roller or miner’s canary was a domestic canary known for its continuous, melodious warbling through a closed beak. It was bred and sold by miners as a secondary occupation. Captured, wild canaries were utilized in the silver mines of the Harz Mountain as an early warning system for toxic gasses and oxygen poor areas.
An advertisement circa 1956/57 that touts the quick-drying ink and details how Pelikan sees their fountain pen, ballpoint, and mechanical pencil lines
A deliberately overexposed photo of a Pelikan 455 clear demonstrator in order to better show off the inner workings of the pen
Pelikan advertised the technical aspects of its ink cartridge, claiming a “centrally positioned ring-flanged ball with double groove lubrication.” The ink was a quick drying and copy-proof formulation, available in the colors of blue, red, green, and black. Refills also came in two widths, 0.8mm and 1.0mm. Catalogs indicate that the ink was marketed as approved for both bank documents and official records, meeting DIN 16554. The cartridges were initially made in-house, but the expense proved prohibitive prompting the company to turn to third party manufacturers at various points during production. The cartridge itself was known as the Pelikan 37 and 37F refill, now long since out of production. Several satisfactory modern-day replacements exist such as the Schneider Express 75 or the Schmidt 700 which work with plug and play interoperability. Circa 1955, Pelikan’s ink refills would sell for around 0.75 Deutsche Marks (DM).
An advertisement for the Pelikan 37 refill, “…The quality refill with the high writing performance and the symbol for world famous writing implements.”
Various iterations of the Pelikan 37 ink refill, now out of production
The 355 Pelikan-Roller was launched on May 23, 1955, in the Black/Green color scheme. An all-black model would follow soon after in June. The retail price for the 355 was around 4.50 DM at that time. This model was meant as a companion pen to the 140 fountain pen as well as the 350 mechanical pencil. Consequently, green, blue, and red models would follow in 1959. In April of that same year, a desk version would come out labeled the 355S and featured the 8S double stand. The front of the 355’s shaft proved to be a weakness on early examples dating from the first three years of production. Pelikan tried to strengthen the design by inserting a metal pipe in the shaft but that too turned out to be sub-optimal. The whole fabrication would ultimately be re-worked to make the shaft from stronger materials. The push button mechanism was also refined in 1959 for better performance. The 355’s ink cartridge is easily exchanged by unscrewing the pen at the middle, just below the inscribed band. This Pelikan-Roller is a smaller pen weighing 0.35 ounces and measuring 5.12 inches in length with a diameter of 0.39 inches. It would ultimately be discontinued in May of 1966, nearly ten months after the 140 ceased production.
The 355 Pelikan Roller assembled and unscrewed to reveal the refill within
Aside from slight differences in size, the 355 and 455 are further distinguished by the inscription on their bands as well as the area surrounding the push button mechanism. The 355 has a plastic dome à la the 140’s cap top whereas the 455 has a gold plated crown more in keeping with the 400’s aesthetic (click to enlarge)
The 455 Pelikan-Roller also launched the same day as the 355 in both Black/Green and Black versions. Tortoiseshell-Brown would follow in October of 1955. These models were designed to accompany the model 400 fountain pen and 450 mechanical pencil. When new, these retailed for 6.50 DM. A year after their introduction, the push button at the top of the shaft was made longer with an overhaul of the whole push-button mechanism occurring in 1959. As with the 355, the shaft was re-enforced that same year. The 455 Pelikan-Roller weighs 0.35 ounces with a length of 5.14 inches and a diameter of 0.39 inches. The 555 would launch in September of 1956 as a matching writing implement for the model 500. It was the same design and size as the 455 except that the top half of the barrel was made of rolled gold giving it a little extra heft at 0.49 ounces. The early 555 is rarely found these days but the earliest examples have a plastic tip. The same model designation would be utilized in 1959 for the models now matching the P1 fountain pen, altered to include a metal tip similar to the 550 mechanical pencil. The 555 would retail for 10.50 DM. Both the 455 and 555 are refilled the same way as the 355, by screwing the pen apart in the middle. Interestingly enough, at least early on, the Pelikan-Roller was cheaper to purchase than its pencil counterparts. For instance, in 1955, the 350 sold for 8.50 DM, the 450 for 10.50 DM, and the 550 for 15 DM. Production of both the 455 and 555 Pelikan-Rollers would end in April of 1963. That corresponds to when the model 500 and P1 fountain pens would also be discontinued. Production of the 400NN fountain pen surpassed its corresponding ballpoint by another ten months.
The 455 Pelikan Roller assembled and unscrewed to reveal the refill within
The 555 Pelikan Roller shown with the metal tip that originated in 1959
The original box that accompanied the early Pelikan Rollers
An advertisement for the Pelikan-Roller family of pens circa 1956/57. Notice the 555 here shown without the metal tip that we commonly associate with the design
The later 1960s and 1970s were served by various product lines like the R30 and related models. Other models such as the K438 and K474 would take it from there and let us not forget the Luigi Colani No. 1. More recently, we have the Pelikan Jazz, but Pelikan too has a long history of less refined, more disposable options for the masses following BIC’s model. There are too many of the various models to recount individually, and their significance is of much less import than those first few models outlined above. More recently, most of Pelikan’s Classic and Souverän fountain pens have had an accompanying ballpoint in a matching finish. These products have a “K” prefix indicating a “Kugelschreiber” or ballpoint. Models in the Classic series and those of the Souverän 400 line have push button mechanisms to extend and retract the ink cartridge. Higher end models starting with the Souverän 600 series have twist mechanisms. These modern pens take Pelikan’s own 337 refills. The refill comes in fine, medium, and broad widths in the colors of blue and black and a medium width only for red. These are the same size as the international standard G2 refill.
This gallery shows various modern ballpoints of the Classic and Souverän lines including K100, K200, K400, and K600s (click to view the gallery)
Ballpoints are now seemingly omnipresent and are often the only pens that most people know, at least in the United States. Their success owes in large part to their reliability thanks to their quick drying and indelible ink which resists leaking, not always something that can be said of fountain pens. You don’t have to worry about ghosting or bleed through either therefore a wider paper selection is available. Perhaps the biggest benefit is that you don’t have to fear lending someone your pen like you might with a fountain pen. Rather than damaging a ballpoint, your only real concern is getting it back. It’s not all roses though. Ballpoints do have drawbacks, perhaps chief amongst them is their reliance on gravity and an inability to write sideways or upside-down (the Fisher Space Pen aside). Ballpoints are also a cheaply made product sold at many price points and cheaper models in particular can suffer from significant inconsistency. A BIC Cristal may also not be the image of yourself that you want to project in more professional settings. There are also those who lament the damage that ballpoints have wrought on handwriting, all but killing off the Palmerian style of flowing script. Josh Giesbrecht in a piece for The Atlantic astutely points out, “Fountain pens want to connect letters. Ballpoint pens need to be convinced to write.” The “ballpoint” designation has become synonymous with the word pen, and it is the type of writing implement that most people are requesting when they ask for a pen. Despite its best efforts, however, the ballpoint’s success did not kill off the fountain pen. In fact, reports of the fountain pen’s death have been greatly exaggerated. With a renewed focus on our ecological footprint and the impact that we are having on this planet, more sustainable options like the fountain pen are getting a fresh look. Thankfully, the sandbox is big enough for all types of writing instruments to play.
Pelikan’s ballpoints and their matching fountain pens. Left to right: 140/355, 400/455, and 500/555
While I don’t address them much on this blog, I do relish the versatility, speed, and ease that a good ballpoint imparts to ones writing and see them as just another tool, not to be shunned, but used in conjunction with fountain pens. Sometimes you need a hammer and sometimes you need a screwdriver so it’s good to have different tools handy. Pens are no different. Pelikan’s models do a solid job and the vintage ones in particular fit in well with their fountain pen and pencil counterparts. If you collect vintage Pelikan pens, I encourage you to make some room for a nice 355, 455, or 555 as they make great companion pieces.
An advertisement for some of Pelikan’s various models as sold circa 1955
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