This week sees the launch of the latest addition to the Pilot FriXion pen range. If you haven’t yet come across the FriXion then you’re missing out on one of the most significant pen developments in recent years.
FriXion rather brilliantly solves the problem of erasable ink. In the dark ages of our schooldays ink could be ‘erased’ using an ink eraser – the coarse, tough, typically grey eraser often found at the other end of a white pencil eraser. These seemed to work primarily by wearing away the paper surface, taking the ink with it!
Why does pencil erase and not ink? Because ink soaks into the paper fibres where pencils lay down a coating of graphite that doesn’t bond very tightly with the paper surface.
Erasable ink was launched in 1979 by Paper Mate in Erasermate/Replay series (later also in the Eraser Max) after a decade of research. The ink in these pens is erased much more like pencil – the ink bound quite lightly to the paper, so could erase reasonably well using a medium-soft eraser. In practice the ink smudged quite a bit and results varied according to how hard you pressed when writing. The ink itself tended to lack vivid colour. However, the nature of the ink meant the refill needed to be pressurised, delivering a ‘Space Pen’ type ability to write upside-down as a by-product.
Uni-ball’s Signo Erasable UM-101ER was a fairly effective update of the Paper Mate approach. The gel ink was stronger in colour yet erased more cleanly. A good product, sadly discontinued a couple of years ago.
None of these should be confused with eradicable ink – this is ink that’s easily bleached out of paper using a special ink eradicator pen. You can only rewrite over the eradicated ink using a strong ink that can withstand the bleach that’s now in the paper. There are a number of eradicable pens and ink and ink eradicators /re-writers – they’re still a popular choice, not least because the ink also washes easily out of children’s clothes!
Pilot dabbled with their own erasable gel pen around 2001, the name of which escapes us (a prize to the first comment naming it). This wasn’t a great success and was soon withdrawn.
However Pilot had also been experimenting with colour-changing ink and in what we like to imagine as something of a eureka moment at the Pilot labs, someone changed an ink colour from black to no colour – transparent. The ink was effectively erased.
This miraculous ink is thermo-sensitive – it changes when subjected to heat. How do you apply heat simply and easily to a line on a page? Easy – just rub it hard enough and the resulting friction generates enough heat to initiate the reaction.
So the Pilot FriXion was born. A gel rollerball with an eraser on the end. Write normally, with all the usual attributes of a decent gel pen – smooth writing with dense, vivid ink colour – but just rub the line with the eraser and voila! – it disappears easily and completely. The ink is still there on the paper but the heat has caused the ink colour to disappear completely. You can just rewrite over the erased line using the same pen. All rather brilliant, especially as there’s 8 colours to choose from.
However it gets better. Put the paper in a freezer for a few minutes and any erasings will reappear! Excellent! This process caused much excitement in magic circles – there are a few elaborate tricks involving FriXion pens out there so if you see any magicians making writing appear and disappear chances are that there’s a FriXion involved somewhere.
When erased lines reappear they are generally a little smudged as the rubbing process pushes the ink around on the paper a bit. However, if you can erase without rubbing then they come back pristine and clear. To do this you just need to apply heat. Cult Pens labs managed this with a lightbulb (of the planet-warming, incandescent type), but don’t try this at home – paper + heat = flames if you’re not careful! One customer asked us if she could use an iron to bulk erase notes from a book. We speculated that it would probably work, though we hadn’t tried it. We didn’t hear back so we’re still none the wiser. Apparently microwaves work as well… There are all kinds of fun and games to be had – try a sticking a FriXion-written Post-It on the side of a mug of hot tea. (When we played around with this we found that with the tea at a certain temperature the ink erased when the Post-It was stuck to the mug, but instantly re-appeared when removed. Put it back on, disappears again; take it off appears; put it back… Keeps us amused for hours. )
We also started thinking about using the process in reverse. Back at Cult Pens labs we gently raised the temperature of a FriXion refill to 60 degrees C. As expected the ink was now clear – invisible ink! We scribbled a brief note, completely invisible on the page, chucked it in the freezer, and the note magically appeared. At last – we had a secure message system for secret communications with Antarctic penguins! (Their iPhones stop working at minus forty).
FriXion was an instant and enormous success for Pilot, selling over 7 million units in the first year. Cult Pens was the first website in the UK to sell them and unusually Pilot launched the product in Europe before Japan, leading to us shipping the Japanese-made pens back to Japanese customers.
Five years later FriXion is the second best-selling pen behind only the venerable BIC Cristal biro and over 100 million units have now been sold in Europe alone. FriXion now comprises a range of pens including the FriXion Light Highlighter, FriXion Slim premium metal version and FriXion Point fine-tip needlepoint roller. All FriXion pens except the highlighters are refillable too. December 2011 sees the launch of the long-awaited retractable version – the FriXion Clicker , while in Japan only at present there’s even a range of FriXion felt tips and ‘pencils’ in 24 colours.
So get yourself some FriXion – pens have never been so much fun!