When I joined Cult Pens, I admit to being a bit flummoxed by the phenomenon known as the 'Sign Pen'. How could you have a pen that was specifically for signing? Surely you could sign stuff with any old pen? Did it perhaps have permanent ink, so that your signature was indelibly imprinted for ever more? Was it maybe a pen used by signwriters? No, on both counts. Fortunately I was able to educate myself from the very website by which I was employed, and this description says it all.
Pentel built its reputation on the fibre-tipped Sign Pen, which was launched in 1963. After all, they invented it, or rather Yukio Horie did (he was the company's President up until his death in 2010). Initial sales in Japan were slow, but some bright spark decided to hand samples around at a trade fair in America, and they followed this up with adverts in American Artist.
Their advertising budget was tiny, however, and they were having to rely on word-of-mouth to get the message out there. Fortunately, that message spread as far as President Lyndon B Johnson, who then proceeded to order several dozen from a Washington wholesaler in order to sign photographs. The Sign Pen got write-ups in prestigious magazines Time and Newsweek, with both mentioning the White House stamp of approval which, as advertising associate Thomas Yamagata put it 'did us no harm'. It certainly didn't, because within the first year of its launch in America, Pentel had sold an astonishing two million Sign Pens.
Demand was so extraordinary that the Tokyo factories simply couldn't keep up. And they also had a problem that probably doesn't exist today: most of their workers were farmers, and had to take time off from making Sign Pens to get on with the rice planting!
If Presidential approval wasn’t doing quite enough to cement the popularity of the Sign Pen, then NASA's ensured that it would go down in the history books - which it did. It was adopted as NASA's official writing instrument and travelled into space in 1966, tucked into the shoulder pockets of astronauts Richard Gordon and Charles Conrad on the Gemini 11 mission.
Over two billion Sign Pens later, it's still going strong, and it's still a great pen.
These days, there are two tips to choose from: the broad acrylic fibre tip that was around in the early sixties, and a flexible brush tip; and both types come in 12 colours - nine more than the black, blue and red that were originally available. Their versatility has made them incredibly popular with fans of journaling and calligraphy, and rightly so.
But apart from that, the Sign Pen hasn't really changed that much. Pentel probably has - technological advances and workers no longer having to wade around in rice paddies has seen to that - but the pen hasn't, because it hasn't needed to. After all, as the saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
9 May 2018