Houston, we've got a Fisher pen

By Sally M. Snell

During World War II, Paul Fisher worked for a Chicago-area ball bearing company that built propeller retention bearings for military aircraft. After the war ended, he became a partner in a screw machine job shop whose customers included an early ballpoint pen manufacturer. When the pen company folded, Fisher started making writing instruments himself. He founded the Fisher Pen Company in 1948 as a division of Fisher Armour Manufacturing and developed a chrome bullet pen.

“He turned this pen on one of the shop lathes out of aluminum,” says Paul’s son, Cary, 64, the company president. The original bullet design was manufactured from solid rod stock, Cary says.

Paul made his first $1 million making universal refills that would fit other pens on the market. Before that, retailers had to carry two point sizes and at least four colors of ink for every pen they offered, a huge inventory commitment.

Then came his most famous invention: the pressurized pen known as the Fisher Space Pen, which writes even when upside down. The pen developed out of Paul’s experiments with new ink formulations to create a better refill. Back-leaks and oozing were common hazards in early inks.

The pen uses ink that is semi-solid until it’s liquefied by the action of the rolling ball. Because the cartridge is pressurized with nitrogen, the pen works without relying on gravity. Ink doesn’t flow until the pen is in use, so shelf life is increased.

The invention coincided with the space age. Astronauts needed a reliable zero-gravity writing instrument. Pencils were dangerous in a gravity-free environment because flakes of graphite could break off and get into the spacecraft’s mechanical systems or the crew’s lungs, says Cary’s son Matt, 26, director of the company’s ad specialties and export division. The original AG7 Space Pen received a patent in 1965 and was first used in the 1968 Apollo 7 mission, after two years of NASA testing. Since then, Fisher’s pens have been used on all U.S. manned space flights, including the moon missions. Russian cosmonauts have used Fisher Space Pens on Soyuz space flights and on the MIR Space Station.

The company moved from California to Boulder City, Nev., in 1976. Today, Fisher has about 65 employees.

The modern space pen is guaranteed to write in extreme temperatures, at any angle and across most surfaces with three times longer life than an average ballpoint. A 1991 episode of the TV comedy Seinfeld centered on a writing implement with all the features of a Fisher Space Pen.

Matt has seen the largest growth in the outdoor market, including pens used by members of the military and law enforcement, but “the classic chrome bullet Space Pen has been our No. 1 seller since its introduction in 1948,” he says.

Cary notes that the original chrome bullet pen was not yet an antigravity device. But, he says, “The basic form of the design has survived largely as it looked in that original pen…. Still being our best-seller 64 years later speaks to its enduring design.”

Paul Fisher died in 2006 at the age of 93. “My dad was a control guy,” says Cary. “The organization chart pretty much looked like he was the axle in the center, and everyone reported to him.” Although Cary became president in 1986, he says his father continued to have a voice in the company. “If he put his foot down and said we couldn’t do something, then we didn’t do it,” Cary says.

Cary says the company’s top-selling pens are essentially 100% U.S.-made. Approximately 20% of Fisher’s sales volume comes from overseas.

How will technology affect the company’s future? “Even I now take a lot of notes on my iPhone,” Cary acknowledges. “But at the same time, I think people are going to need pens for a very long time.

“I think in the long run if people need to have one pen … it’ll probably be our pen, or at least our pen -technology.”

Sally M. Snell is a writer based in Lawrence, Kan.







Copyright 2013 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permssion from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.

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January/February 2013

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