Milton Reynolds

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Reynolds (right) in the Oval Office (1947)

Milton Reynolds (1892–1976), an American entrepreneur, was born "Milton Reinsberg" in Albert Lea, Minnesota. He is most famously known for the manufacture and introduction of the first ballpoint pen to be sold in the U.S. market in October 1945. He was also inventor of the “talking sign” promotional placard for retail stores, sponsor and crewman on the twin-engine propeller flight that broke Howard Hughes’ round-the-world record,[1] and among the first investors in Syntex, which pioneered the combined oral contraceptive pill, or birth-control pill.[2]

Reynolds’ business fortunes and personal wealth rose and fell numerous times during his career. He changed his name because he believed that his customers, including major U.S. retailers, were reluctant to buy from Jews. Long before his success with the pen, he had tried several ventures that made and lost considerable sums, including trying to corner the market on used automobile tires and investing in prefabricated houses. A business he built around retail signmaking equipment, Reynolds Printasign,[3] was owned and operated by two generations of his heirs.[4]

Developing the gravity-feed ballpoint[edit]

Reynolds never claimed to have invented the ballpoint. A rolling-ball mechanism for marking leather was conceived as early as 1888 by American inventor John Loud.[5][6] In 1938, newspaper editor László Bíró, a Hungarian-émigré to Argentina, and business partner Henry G. Martin patented a device for marking printers’ galleys. The Biro pen used gelatinous ink combined with capillary action to draw the ink out as it was deposited on paper by the rolling-ball tip. Because the pen did not leak at high altitude, the Biro venture sold a quantity of pens to the Royal Air Force for keeping flight logs, under a contract with Myles Aircraft. Subsequently, Biro's company Eterpen, S.A. licensed manufacturing rights in the US to a joint venture between Eversharp and Eberhard Faber.

While paying a sales call to Goldblatt's department store in Chicago,[7] Reynolds was shown one of the rare Biro pens and apparently recognized it as a potentially hot consumer item for the postwar era. Working with engineer William Huernergardt and machinist Titus Haffa,[8] Reynolds came up with a design that did not rely on patented capillary action but caused ink to flow by gravity. However, successful gravity feed required much thinner, viscous ink and a much larger barrel to avoid constant refilling. The thin ink made the pens prone to leakage, but, realizing time was of the essence, Reynolds rushed them to market anyway, touting the high ink capacity. With roller balls repurposed from the metal beads used in war-surplus bomb sights and barrels machined from aircraft aluminum, the Reynolds pens had another feature that captured the popular imagination: In early ads, Reynolds claimed, “It writes under water!”[9] The claim was essentially truthful because his pen wrote successfully on wet paper. Consumers had little use for this bizarre practical application, but a generation of shoppers remembered the slogan long after Reynolds passed into history.[10]

Introduction of the Pen[edit]

Although Eversharp had plans to introduce a pen modeled after Biro’s, Reynolds beat all his potential competitors to market. Before and during the war, when he sold signmaking equipment to retailers, Reynolds had cultivated personal relationships with the heads of all the department stores. Among these was Fred Gimbel, whose family owned Gimbels in Manhattan, the arch-rival of Macy's. Through an exclusive deal with Gimbel, the Reynolds pen debuted at the 32nd Street store on the morning of October 29, 1945. The war had just ended (V-J Day was on August 14), so public exuberance was high. The pen sold for the then-luxurious price, approved under wartime price controls, of $12.50, which in those days would have bought an overnight stay at a luxury hotel. But people who had the money were looking for the perfect Christmas gift for the returning soldier they expected would soon be a white-collar executive. The day the pen went on sale, an estimated 5,000 shoppers stormed Gimbels, and approximately 50 NYPD officers had to be dispatched for crowd control.[11]

The Reynolds International Pen Company[edit]

The Chicago-based Reynolds International Pen Company made 8 million pens in six weeks, cranking out lathe-turned pens in a manufacturing facility converted from an indoor tennis court. Thereafter came an era chronicled in the print media of the time as the “Pen Wars,”[12] as latecomer Eversharp finally entered the market. Eversharp then sued Reynolds for patent infringement, and Reynolds countersued on the grounds of illegal restraint of trade.[13] Ultimately, the main result of the legal battle was to generate reams of free publicity for both products. Reynolds capitalized on his sudden success by introducing a new model dubbed the “Reynolds Rocket” from the Reynolds International Pen Company. He shipped pens overseas while making partnership overtures, even buying a French estate, le Château du Mesnil-Saint-Denis in 1947,[14] as an intended base of European operations.

Pen Wars[edit]

Reynolds knew that it was only a matter of time until the established pen manufacturers Eversharp, Parker Pen Company, and Waterman pens flooded the market with much cheaper models backed up with big national advertising campaigns. Rather than compete and watch his margins dwindle, he sold the company off in pieces. European rights to the name went to a French concern, and the Reynolds pen is a well-known French brand today[15] (although the company is just as well known for its inexpensive fountain pens, which schoolchildren use for lessons in cursive penmanship). However, in Britain especially, “Biro” has become the generic term for any ballpoint pen. Many of the parts for the Reynolds Rocket were made by Fisher-Armour Mfg in Chicago. When Reynolds decided to stop selling, Paul C. Fisher, later to found Fisher Pen Company and invent the Fisher Space Pen, decided to try to improve the pen.[16] He sold the corporate charter to the U.S. government, which renamed it the Reynolds Construction Company and allegedly passed clandestine payments to foreign governments through the paper entity.[17]

Reynolds the aviator[edit]

Reynolds took his profits and indulged his hobby, a lifelong love of flying. In the 1930s, he’d owned a Stinson Reliant biplane he named the “Flying Printasign” after his signmaking company. Even as he was planning to exit the pen business, he bought a used B-26 bomber. He had the armor removed and retrofitted the plane with commercial engines, christening it the “Reynolds Bombshell.” He hired war-hero Bill Odom as pilot,[18] Tex Sallee as copilot, and in 1947 the three of them flew around the world in 78 hours, 55.5 minutes, making four stops for refueling, to set the world record for twin-engine propeller aircraft. (The previous record, set by Howard Hughes, was 91 hours, 14 minutes. Both records were surpassed in 1957.) Reynolds had timed the flight to coincide with the international introduction of the Reynolds Rocket,[19] a pen that wrote in two colors.

Reynolds and crew made one more newsworthy intercontinental flight, an expedition to the Amne Machin mountain range in Tibet and K2, the second highest mountain in the world, between China and Pakistan. He renamed his retrofitted bomber the “China Explorer.” He believed (wrongly) that K2 was taller than Mount Everest in the Himalayas[20] and hoped to leverage the publicity he’d get from establishing that fact. Among many challenges, the expedition was beset by obstacles imposed by the communist Chinese government, which detained the flight near Nanking and then sent fighter planes to escort it across the Sea of Japan. In the intervening period, Reynolds and the China Explorer had diverted their guards, taken off from Lunghwa Field, and completed a quick flyover of K2. Reynolds family lore has it that Milton had made a secret deal from the outset with the US government to look for evidence of Chinese nuclear tests.[21] If this were indeed his secret mission, it would certainly explain the resistance he encountered.[22] No one involved with the expedition admitted knowledge of such a plan.[23] For many years thereafter, the clandestine payments passed through the Reynolds Construction Company by US intelligence were part of an operation code-named “KK Mountain”.[24]

Reynolds sold the "Reynolds Bombshell" in 1948. After passing through several owners, it ended up in Iran, used by Bell Helicopter as a transport. It was abandoned there at the time of the Iran Revolution of 1979 and remains on display there in the Aerospace Exhibition Centre, in Tehran.[25]

Retirement to Mexico City[edit]

Of all Reynolds’ ventures, Reynolds Printasign endured, bought out by his son James, and subsequently run by grandson Thomas. Milton Reynolds retired to a hacienda near Mexico City. The place was so grand, the family called it the “Milton Hilton.”[26] During this last phase of his career, Reynolds and investor Charles Allen speculated in land and invested in Iranian oil,[27] and Reynolds traveled the world on commercial flights as an unofficial “goodwill ambassador” for the United States. Reynolds authored a book entitled "Hasta La Vista" in 1944, which was a story of his travels in South America. In 1944 the first edition was printed by the Greenville Publishers. An alternate "special" first edition (signed and issued only for his special friends) of the same book was printed in Mexico by the Chicago Packet Company and is highly prized by collectors.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bill Odom Obituary, GenDisasters Archived 2016-11-21 at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ "Milton Reynolds, Pen Maker, Dead; Popularized the Ballpoint Pen - Set a Flight Speed Mark," NY Times obit, Jan 25, 1976, p. 45
  3. ^ The Reynolds Group (Printasign's successor company)
  4. ^ Rosenberg, Robert Leonard (1971). The Ventures and Adventures of an Errant Entrepreneur: Milton (Ball-point) Reynolds (1892-). PhD Thesis. University of Washington.
  5. ^ Ballpoint Pen: Fascinating Facts About the Invention
  6. ^ The Ballpoint Pen "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2007-04-17. Retrieved 2007-03-11.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  7. ^ Rosenberg thesis, p. 60. Note: Several sources state Reynolds discovered the pen on a trip to Argentina. Rosenberg, who had first-person access to Reynolds company records and family members, maintains that Louis Goldblatt showed Reynolds the pen, then he went looking for its inventor.
  8. ^ Rosenberg thesis, p. 67
  9. ^ Spoofed in Three Stooges Heavenly Daze episode.
  10. ^ Whiteside, Thomas, “Where Are They Now? The Amphibious Pen,” The New Yorker (February 17, 1951), pp. 39-69.
  11. ^ Whiteside, p. 39
  12. ^ Whiteside, New Yorker
  13. ^ "Reynolds Pen Files Million Suit," NY Times, Oct 7, 1945, Business & Finance, p. F5
  14. ^ Rosenberg thesis, p. 169.
  15. ^ G. M. Pens licensee for Reynolds Pens (France) "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2010-02-27. Retrieved 2010-05-04.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  16. ^ direct from Paul C. Fisher
  17. ^ Cockburn, Leslie and Alexander Cockburn, Dangerous Liaison: The Inside Story of the U.S.-Israeli Covert Relationship, Harper Perennial (1992), p. 101
  18. ^ Note: Although Odom was famous for flying dangerous WWII missions in Burma, this is not the same individual as Gen. William Eldridge Odom
  19. ^ Bill's Pens: Reynolds Pen Company[permanent dead link]
  20. ^ "Science: There She Stands," Time, Apr 26, 1948 (mentions Reynolds),9171,798468,00.html
  21. ^ Rosenberg thesis, p. 131 states that, prior to the flight, Reynolds met with Lt. Gen. William Kepner in Honolulu, who was curious about the feasibility of placing a nuclear detection post in the area Reynolds intended to explore. Rosenberg adds there was no further evidence Reynolds ever acted on this direction or reported back.
  22. ^ Rosenberg thesis, pp. 102 - 148.
  23. ^ per Thomas B. Reynolds
  24. ^ Cockburn and Cockburn, Dangerous Liaison, p. 101
  25. ^ A-26 Invader/44-34759 Retrieved 25 July 2011
  26. ^ per Thomas Reynolds
  27. ^ Rosenberg, Robert L., "Qum-1956: A Misadventure in Iranian Oil," The Business History Review, Vol. 49, No. 1 (Spring, 1975), pp. 81-104.