A Lasting Mark: Space Pens and the Workers Who Make Them

Space Pens and the Men Who Make Them
Space Pens and the Men 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.

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."

For more Made in the U.S.A. stories, go to This Built America.