Disposable products; iconic designs

It’s time to celebrate the disposable, to honor the expendable. On this day, 29 July 1914, Baron Marcel Bich was born – the man who built his business empire on his brilliantly designed and cleverly marketed throwaway Bic pens, lighters and razors.

Whether you’re absentmindedly doodling, or jotting down a shopping list, chances are there will be a Bic pen at hand.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Bich, together with his friend Edouard Buffard, acquired an old factory where they proceeded to produce a low-cost, reliable ballpoint pen that took the world by storm. Bich based his design on a ballpoint pen manufactured in Argentina by László Bíró, but introduced many design innovations into his pen. His manufacturing innovations also allowed him keep the production costs of the pen down.

Bich invested heavily in advertising, and based on a recommendation from his advertising company, shortened the name of the pen to Bic. The Bic pen was an unprecedented success both in Europe and later in the USA and the rest of the world, and with its slogan of “Writes first time, every time”, it became the main driving force in changing the worldwide market from costly fountain pens to disposable ballpoints.

The industrial design excellence of the the Bic Cristal pen (with its transparent polystyrene barrel and classic pencil shape) has been acknowledged by the New York Museum of Modern Art, where it has been included in its permanent collection. Some of the innovative features of the design is its transparent barrel that shows the ink level of the pen, and a small hole in the barrel to ensure equal air pressure inside and outside the pen.

The Bic pen is said to be the world’s most efficient pen, able to write a line over 2km in length. After more than half a century, the Bic pen remains a top seller, with more than one hundred billion having been sold internationally.

Over time, Bich’s company, Société Bic, diversified its business to include the Bic lighter (1973), followed by the Bic shaver (1976). As in the case of the Bic pen, the Bic lighter has become an icon of modern industrial design, and has also been included in the New York Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. The design of the lighter has remained virtually unchanged since its inception.

Getting back to the Bic pen, one of the most impressive artists I’ve come across lately is Juan Francisco Rosas, who creates huge, incredibly detailed, photo-realistic artworks using nothing but Bic pens – mindblowing, and further testament to the iconic, throwaway Bic pen.

Do the write thing – celebrate Ball-point Pen Day!

Back in 1943, on 10 June, a patent was filed by the Hungarian Biro brothers, Laszlo and George, for a new type of writing instrument – the ball-point pen.  The Biro’s weren’t the first to come up with the idea of a pen using a roller-ball mechanism to distribute ink in a controlled manner (the first patent for a similar instrument was issued in 1888 already, and the Biro’s also filed an earlier patent in 1939), but their 1943 design was the one that proved commercially viable.  Once they’d refined their design, they started marketing the pens in Argentina.

The new ball-point pens quickly caught the attention of the British Royal Air Force – they were sturdier than traditional fountain pens, and they also worked at higher altitudes.  Proving their toughness with the Royal Air Force, Biro pens became widely used by the military during World War II.

Its Ball-point Pen Day – the day to Do the Write Thing
(© All Rights Reserved)

Bic bought out the Biro brothers’ patent in 1950, and has since sold in excess of 100 billion ball-point pens.  The Bic ball-point pen has become so ubiquitous that the term ‘bic pen’ has come to be used as the catch-all term when referring to disposable ball-point pens in general.

Some of the more interesting recent achievements in the continued development of the ball-point pen include the rollerball pen, which combine the basic ball-point design with the use of liquid ink similar to fountain pens, and so-called space pens, which combine highly viscous ball-point pen ink with a gas-pressured piston mechanism forcing the ink toward the point. This allows the pen to write upside down or in zero gravity environments.

It’s hard to imagine life without the trusty old ball-point. With disposable pens having become a popular branding/marketing hand-out, I haven’t had to buy a pen in over 10 years and there always seems to be one handy wherever I am in the house… or car… or office… 🙂