Vangelis Vassalakis/ShutterstockWhen you think of a generic ballpoint pen, you’re probably thinking of a Bic. The manufacturer sells more pens (and lighters) than any other company in the United States. Need branded pens for a company giveaway? Chances are they’ll be Bic. Stocking up for your kid’s school year? Bic again.
Ballpoint pens are painfully ordinary today, but the first ones caused quite the stir. Reynolds International Pen Co. introduced the first modern ones to the United States in 1945. “It had a tiny ball bearing instead of a point, was guaranteed to need refilling only once every two years, would write under water (handy for mermaids), on paper, cloth, plastic or blotters,” hailed a 1945 Time article. If you only ever type these days, there’s good reason to rediscover pens: Writing by hand could make you smarter.
Back then, thousands of customers lined up to pay $12.50—worth about $170 these days—for the newfangled pens. Spend that kind of money on pens these days and you could get about 2,050 ballpoints. But spend that office supply money wisely: Science says having a lucky pen could make you a better writer.
Meanwhile, one Frenchman had set up a business making parts for fountain pens and mechanical pencils. With the rising popularity of ballpoint pens, he added plastic pen barrels to his repertoire. Then in 1950, he decided to try his hand at making his own full pens. These ones were simple without a retractable tip, and cost just 19 cents, worth about two dollars by today’s standards.
That French pen maker’s name? Marcel Bich. Luckily, he decided to shorten his last name from Bich to Bic.
The company claims the shortness was a “more memorable version” of Bich’s name, which is pronounced “beek” in French. But we can only imagine the awkward moments and immature jokes from English speakers if he’d kept the original spelling. Interested in more? Check out the fascinating origins of these other 14 company names.