A Lasting Mark: Space Pens and the Workers Who Make Them
Paul Fisher was something of a mad scientist.
Longtime employees of his Fisher Space Pen Co. tell stories of a bathrobe-clad "Mr. Fisher" -- people at the Boulder City, Nevada, facility still refer to him that way -- rushing downstairs at midnight from his apartment on the factory's second floor to discuss some idea for a new ink mixture or manufacturing proposal.
Fisher, who died in 2006, got into the pen business in 1948. The result of one of his first late-night ideas was the iconic bullet pen, so named for its sleek design, rounded on both ends. Fisher's oldest son, Cary, now a co-owner of the company, says his father was always a tinkerer.
During World War II, a ball bearing factory hired Paul Fisher away from his accounting firm job. "The Air Force had all of these airplanes ready to fly and no propeller retention bearings," Cary Fisher says, and the armed force was threatening to withdraw contracts. The Air Force concluded that the company's managers were too old and demanded a younger man be put in charge.
So Paul Fisher found himself rubbing shoulders with the movers and shakers of military procurement services in the Chicago area.
After the war, Fisher went to work for Milton Reynolds, who manufactured the first ballpoint pen. "When Reynolds decided to bankrupt the company and head to Mexico," Cary Fisher says, "my dad started Fisher Pen Company." The year was 1948.
The elder Fisher had been tinkering with a pressurized ballpoint pen for years when NASA came calling in the early 1960s. In 1965, he submitted a pen to NASA that would bring the company its greatest notoriety, and a new name.
Chapter 1: The Write Stuff
In the early days of the U.S. space program, astronauts used expensive mechanical pencils. But the potential hazards of broken pencil lead floating around astronauts' faces and sensitive equipment made them a dubious choice.
The atmosphere in the capsules of early Apollo missions was pure oxygen. But after a fire claimed the lives of three Apollo 1 astronauts in 1967, NASA needed instruments that wouldn't burn in a 100 percent-oxygen environment.
After inquiries with big companies such as Paper Mate and Bic brought no solutions, a Dallas pen wholesaler, who NASA approached first, told the agency about a guy named Paul Fisher: "He does more research than anybody else."
"So NASA called him," Cary Fisher says, "and my dad replies, 'Where the heck you guys been? I've been trying to get a hold of you for a year!'"
Paul Fisher had been working for years on developing a pen that didn't leak and could write upside down. He believed that devising a pressurized device would solve all his problems.
"He went through so many experiments," Cary Fisher says. "But none of them worked."
A chemist associate of Paul Fisher's came up with a synthetic rubber that wouldn't break down and would prevent leaks. After a couple years of tests and alterations Fisher had a winner -- a pressurized pen that didn't leak and didn't rely on gravity to force the ink to the ball.
After rigorous tests, NASA approved his all-metal space pen, called the AG-7. In 1968, it flew on the first manned Apollo space mission and launched Fisher Space Pen. A couple years later, even Russians cosmonauts were using Fisher pens.
But the times were changing.
The biggest pen company in the United States had once been Lindy, with Fisher coming in at No. 2. But then Bic, a French company that had been successful in Europe, spent a lot of money breaking into the U.S. market.
Fisher Space Pen faced a choice: abandon making traditional pens and focus their attentions to manufacturing their groundbreaking anti-gravity instruments.
"If we were still a gravity-fed stick pen company," Cary Fisher says, "we probably wouldn't be in business today."
Chapter 2: Embracing a Legacy
Neatly dressed and fit, Cary Fisher is an almost preternaturally young-looking 65.
Since his father's death in 2006, he has been president and co-owner of Fisher Space Pen. His well-appointed office is adorned with signed photographs of astronauts. It is the only modern-looking space in the company's facility.
In the early 1990s, Paul Fisher attracted by Nevada's tax laws and pro-industry environment, combined his Chicago-area and Van Nuys, California, operations in Boulder City, a quiet, non-gambling community about 20 miles from Las Vegas.
"My dad was a very charismatic guy," Cary Fisher says. "He loved being the center of attention. I was never that way. I was always the good soldier -- in the background."
As a kid Cary Fisher spent lots of time around the plant, where he became familiar with barrels and ink, balls and points. "I kinda always figured I'd work for my dad," he says.
The younger Fisher studied economics and business at Occidental College in Southern California. After he received his only college F -- in French, his first stab at a foreign language -- his father told him, "I never learned anything in college that I couldn't learn on the job." Cary read between the lines: The source of his tuition payments was drying up. So father and son made a deal: "If I worked for him for a year, he'd pay for college."
"I spent some time in the ink department, learned about refills. I went on some trips with him. So it was a good education."
After finishing his business degree at California State University, Northridge, Cary Fisher went to work for the accounting firm Arthur Andersen. After a couple other jobs, Cary returned to his father's company in 1979, drawn back by family ties.
"When I was younger, I was embarrassed about this factory," Cary Fisher says of his early days at the company. He had seen other U.S. and European facilities, with almost fully automated assembly lines.
But since then, the younger Fisher has embraced the company's old school sensibilities. Like his father, he's upholding the tradition of handcrafted quality as opposed to mass produced automation.
Fisher understands he's no longer competing with the likes of Bic and other big manufacturers. "The stick pen business is a consumer-industrial product. But the space pen is a gift item."
Chapter 3: In it for the Long Haul
Boulder City, a sleepy desert town of about 15,000, exists because of Hoover Dam -- called Boulder Dam until 1947. The Bureau of Reclamation built the town in 1931 to house the 5,000 workers who constructed the Colorado River project. The night sky in Boulder City is dominated by the neon glow of nearby Las Vegas, but it is one of two Nevada towns that prohibit gambling.
Fisher Space Pen is housed in unassuming 30,000-square-foot metal warehouse, just inside the city limits, about three blocks from the main drag.
The mood in the factory is light. Most people seem jovial. They sit around long tables operating small machines or sifting through small boxes of pen parts.
Most of the work on the assembly line is still done by hand. Workers inspect pen barrels and refills, and points and engraving. Some employees use machines that were built in the 1960s. In the laser-printing department, two women operate a computer with a four-inch screen that looks like it came from the set of the original Star Trek television series.
Everywhere there are boxes of pens and pen parts. Many boxes labeled with the names of customers: the Smithsonian, California Highway Patrol, Montana National Guard. NASA, of course. Staples (SPLS) is a key vendor for Fisher.
Fisher Space Pen makes practically every part of its pens -- barrels, ballpoints, brass fittings -- and especially the ink. Visitors aren't allowed in the ink room. Its secret formulas are guarded like a craft beer brewmaster's recipes. In another area of the factory the ink is put into the pressurized refill tubes. A machine fuses each end and attaches the ballpoint.
Behind the shipping department, tucked inside a little office that shares space with the supply closet, sits Dock Wong.
If Cary Fisher is the face of the company, Dock, the other co-owner, is its heart and soul.
Dock was an 18-year-old college freshman on Chicago's South Side when a friend who worked for Fisher Pen convinced him to get out of the house and work for the company.
"My friend said, 'Hey, they need someone who's good with figures, who can help,'" Dock recalls. "So I agreed to come in for an interview."
He decided to give it a go during a semester off from college. Little tasks led to more tasks and responsibility. When the time came to return to college, Dock thought, "Well, maybe I'll stay awhile longer."
"I started doing inventory control and other things. I just stayed. Now I've been here 57 years," he says.
Dock guards the company's reputation for quality. The rare complaints about Fisher products are answered with free repairs and replacement pens. Each individual department within the facility has a quality-control procedure.
Dock is just one of many employees who've made Fisher Space Pen their life's work.
Pearl Derbidge, who works on the assembly line, has been with Fisher for almost 21 years. Her husband, prior to his death last year, played Santa at company Christmas parties. "There are a lot of family-oriented people who work here," she says. "We have a family of four; there are mothers and sons, sisters, husbands, wives and daughters. There's a lot of loyalty here."
Danny Marshall has been with Fisher since he became friends with Paul Fisher's son Scott in the early 1980s.
"I was out riding my motorcycle with Scott," Marshall says. "We became friends. And soon I started knocking down palettes. I just learned from there."
"I'm the point plant manager, I guess you could say," Marshall says. Fisher Space Pen isn't big on titles. He operates a Swiss-made, multi-drilling machine built in the '60s that makes the ballpoints. Marshall's department produces about 120,000 points per month depending on inventory of fine, medium and bold points. It's exacting work.
"Mr. Fisher instilled in us an attention to detail and accuracy and dependability," Marshall says. "It's not for everyone, factory work, assembling pens all day every day, or making points."
%VIRTUAL-pullquote-Every day is different here ... We always need to be ready to jump on whatever project comes up.%Cesar Reveles got his start in the pen business when he was just 14-years-old working a summer job. Today, Reveles is one of the plant managers. If he's not overseeing the assembly line, he's working on it, putting pens together.
"Every day is different here," he says. "We always need to be ready to jump on whatever project comes up. I just came here for a regular job. Now I'm involved in everything -- designing pens, packaging, what's happening the next few years -- and I work on the line."
"I've been here 27 years," he continues. "It's definitely a community. If you compare us to Cross or Mont Blanc, we're really a small company, but we're all focused on one thing: making a great product. Upholding the whole notion of 'Made in America,' I think, still counts."
For more Made in the U.S.A. stories, go to This Built America.
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