Milton Reynolds (1892–1976), an American entrepreneur, was born Milton Reinsberg in Albert Lea, Minnesota. He is most famously known for the manufacture and introduction of the first ballpoint pen to be sold in the U.S. market in October 1945. He was also inventor of the “talking sign” promotional placard for retail stores, sponsor and crewman on the twin-engine propeller flight that broke Howard Hughes’ round-the-world record, and among the first investors in Syntex, which pioneered the combined oral contraceptive pill, or birth-control pill. Reynolds’ business fortunes and personal wealth rose and fell numerous times during his career. He changed his name because he believed that his customers, including major U.S. retailers, were reluctant to buy from Jews. Long before his success with the pen, he had tried several ventures that made and lost considerable sums, including trying to corner the market on used automobile tires and investing in prefabricated houses. A business he built around retail signmaking equipment, Reynolds Printasign, was owned and operated by two generations of his heirs.
Developing the Gravity-Feed Ballpoint
Reynolds never claimed to have invented the ballpoint. A rolling-ball mechanism for marking leather was conceived as early as 1888 by American inventor John Loud. Then in 1938, newspaper editor Laszlo Biro, a Hungarian-émigré to Argentina, and business partner Henry G. Martin patented a device for marking printers’ galleys. The Biro pen used gelatinous ink combined with capillary action to draw the ink out as it was deposited on paper by the rolling-ball tip. Because the pen did not leak at high altitude, the Biro venture was able to sell a limited quantity of pens to the Royal Air Force for keeping flight logs, under a contract with Myles Aircraft. Subsequently, Biro's company Eterpen, S.A. licensed manufacturing rights in the U.S. to a joint venture betweenEversharp and Eberhard Faber. While paying a sales call to Goldblatt's department store in Chicago, Reynolds was shown one of the rare Biro pens and apparently recognized it as a potentially hot consumer item for the postwar era. Working with engineer William Huernergardt and machinist Titus Haffa, Reynolds came up with a design that did not rely on patented capillary action but caused ink to flow by gravity. However, successful gravity feed required much thinner, viscous ink and a much larger barrel to avoid constant refilling. The thin ink made the pens prone to leakage, but, realizing time was of the essence, Reynolds rushed them to market anyway, touting the high ink capacity. With roller balls repurposed from the metal beads used in war-surplus bomb sights and barrels machined from aircraft aluminum, the Reynolds pens had another feature that captured the popular imagination: In early ads, Reynolds claimed, “It writes under water!” The claim was essentially truthful because his pen wrote successfully on wet paper. Consumers had little use for this bizarre practical application, but a generation of shoppers remembered the slogan long after Reynolds passed into history. -------------------------------------------------
Introduction of the Pen
Although Eversharp had plans to introduce a pen modeled after Biro’s, Reynolds beat all his potential competitors to market. Before and during the war, when he sold signmaking equipment to retailers, Reynolds had cultivated personal relationships with the heads of all the department stores. Among these was Fred Gimbel, whose family owned Gimbels in Manhattan, the arch-rival ofMacy's. Through an exclusive deal with Gimbel, the Reynolds pen debuted at the 32nd Street store on the morning of October 29, 1945. The war had just ended (V-J Day was on August 14), so public exuberance was high. The pen sold for the then-luxurious price, approved under wartime price controls, of $12.50, which in those days would...
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