This history of the Bic Cristal
There is something pleasingly simple and minimalist about the Bic Cristal ballpoint: no fancy mechanisms, the clear barrel which shows the ink level, the colour coded cap. Its shape mimics that of a pencil with its hexagonal sides allowing a good grip and they work well, rarely leaking or jamming. We buy 57 of them every second and it is the world’s best-selling pen but it is also featured in the Design Museum here in the UK as well as the Museum of Modern Art in the US. An everyday icon then.
The Bic originated in France in the 1950’s, the genius invention of Marcel Bich (he later dropped the H from his brand name) who saw the market for a cheap and simple alternative to the fountain pen. The modern ballpoint had been invented in the 1930 by Hungarian László Bíró who, whilst working as a print journalist, noticed that newspaper ink dried quickly which meant it smudged less. The printing ink proved too viscous for a pen but eventually he and his brother György came up with a formula which worked together with a ball-tipped mechanism.
The advent of the second world war combined with László’s Jewish identity forced the brothers to flee to Argentina where they developed and patented the pen. However the price was high, the equivalent of as much as a week’s salary for many. Bich saw the potential and licenced the patent for the Biro but created a cheap, single-use alternative which together with some award-winning marketing led to the pen we know and love today.
The pens haven’t changed much over the years, the ball switching from stainless steel to tungsten carbide and a hole added to the cap to allow air through in the event of them being swallowed. Otherwise the barrel is polystyrene and the cap polypropylene – a softer material to absorb the shock of being dropped. The ball is less than 1mm wide and is as hard as a diamond, the barrel is a handy shape for a tracheotomy (see M*A*S*H), they don’t leak at altitude and each pen can write an estimated 2km. All in a pen that costs about 30p.
With the current concern about single-use plastics you might wonder if the Bic Biro is heading for obsolescence? Not anytime soon is the answer: Bic say that you can make 3,200 pens from the oil used to send a low powered car 100km and the materials used are few and non-toxic. Ultimately a fountain pen may be greener but the ease of use and the reliability mean the Bic Biro will continue to populate office stationery cupboards for some time still.