At one point in the 1992 film “A Few Good Men,” witness-on-the-stand Col. Jessup (Jack Nicholson) sternly asks defense lawyer Lt. Kaffee (Tom Cruise), “Are we clear?” He gets the equally terse response, “Crystal.”
Recalling this scene brought to mind that ubiquitous ballpoint pen that made a remarkable entry into the world of writing in the 1950s. The earliest versions of the ballpoint pen actually appeared in the late 19th century when American lawyer John Loud obtained a patent in 1888. However, it took a Hungarian journalist – László Biró – to design the first commercially viable and non-leaking ball pen in 1938. László and his chemist brother György fled to Argentina to escape persecution just before the start of WW2 hostilities, filed a patent on June 10, 1943 (officially celebrated as National Ballpoint Pen Day), and commenced manufacturing his writing instrument there under the brand name Biróme, a portmanteau of their surname and that of a local business partner, Juan Jorge Meyne.
In the post-war era, companies like Eversharp and Reynolds introduced ball pens in the US, but their initial success plunged in the 1950s. A Frenchman – Marcel Bich – then obtained the rights to produce an improved version of the Biró model, calling it the Bic (an advertising executive advised him to shorten his name for better recall) Cristal (French for the crystal-like clarity and transparency of the hexagonal barrel.) This allowed the user to view how much ink was left in the plastic reservoir.
Exceeding 100 billion units in sales by 2006 (today, some 57 units are sold globally per second), the Bic Cristal was enshrined in the permanent design collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. And in 1961, Bic introduced the orange-colored barrel of this now iconic ball pen. The utilitarian qualities of Bic – cheap, disposable, refillable, versatile and convenient – diminished the demand for fountain pens, but not for long. Fountain pens would make a resurgence in the 1990s.
The “Bille Carbure” (French for carbide ball) marking on the facet of this 1960s Bic Orange’s hexagonal polystyrene barrel refers to the ball bearing which spins freely within the pen’s brass tip. Capillary action allows the ink inside the polypropylene tube to flow into this feed. Originally made of stainless steel, the ball was replaced by the much harder tungsten carbide ball in 1961.