Prints & Cards
CA Ballpoint 1945-1947
by Jim Mamoulides 11/9/02 - Updated 6/13/03
The Pen That Killed Eversharp
In 1945, Eversharp embarked on a rushed attempt to enter the ballpoint market, spending millions to obtain the rights to make the Biro ballpoint from the Eterpen Company of Argentina. The "pen that killed Eversharp" was called the "CA" pen as it used a capillary action cartridge to flow the ink to the steel ball. The earliest CA ballpoints were styled like the popular Skyline pens. Quickly following was a Fifth Avenue CA, and the CA Retractable. In the company's haste to get the pen to market, it was not extensively tested, and the first year's very high sales quickly turned into massive returns, because of poor writing quality that can be traced to insufficient quality testing and inherent flaws in the cartridge design. This caused the company to accept huge losses in honoring the lifetime guarantee, and is a textbook case of first to market is not always best to market. Eversharp never really recovered from the loss, exiting the pen business in 1957.
The Rise and Fall and Rise of the Ballpoint
The CA is one of the first sorties into major ballpoint manufacturing, and its near immediate success is a testimony to the impact the ballpoint pen would have on the pen market some ten years later and to this day.
The ballpoint system used in the Eversharp CA was the invention two Hungarian brothers, Ladislo and George Biro, who worked on the ballpoint pen concept and applied for patents in 1938. During World War II they moved to Argentina and introduced the Biro ballpoint pen through the newly formed Eterpen Company. The pen received accolades in the press because the Biros claimed it could write for a year without refilling.
In May, 1945, Eversharp partnered with Eberhard-Faber to acquire exclusive manufacturing and marketing rights from Eterpen and poured millions into acquisition, development, advertising and production, in order to rush the pen to market. Eversharp made press releases months before the pen was actually available, in order to stir up demand and quickly recoup its investment, likely banking on the base of its market leading Skyline pens.
In June, 1945, entrepreneurial businessman Milton Reynolds was in Buenos Aires on other business and saw the same Biro ballpoint that had stirred up the Eversharp and Eberhard-Faber partnership and came to the same conclusion as to its potential. He bought several pens as samples and on his return to his home base in Chicago, launches the Reynolds International Pen Company to manufacture it.
The Reynolds pen was effectively a reverse engineered product that also violated the exclusive rights purchased by Eversharp. Whether this was known to Reynolds or not is of some debate, but he beat Eversharp to the market with essentially the same pen, introducing it in October, 1945 at Gimbel's department store in New York. The Reynolds Rocket ballpoint pen was priced at US $12.50 and 8,000 units were sold on the first day, valued at US $100,000. Needless to say, Eversharp found themselves late to market with the same pen, and sued to prevent further mischief by Reynolds. Apparently, the lawsuit failed, as there was no enforceable patent for the pen. It was for naught, as the Reynolds pen was of poor design, leaking and skipping, leading to many returns that eventually crippled the company, which folded in 1951.
Interestingly, the original patent for a rotating writing ball, was awarded to John Loud in 1888, and any rights for this patent would have expired into the public domain by the time of this dispute. Had the parties known this, the lawsuit aspect of the story may have taken a different turn and stolen fewer funds from Eversharp's rapidly depleting finances.
Eversharp's CA, while a better product than Reynolds, suffered equally from being poorly engineered and not well enough tested before being released, something that Eversharp, an industry leader, certainly had the means to do. The rush to be first became more important than the quality testing of an entirely new and unproven product. High expectations, both from advertising and from Eversharp's reputation as a first tier pen manufacturer, led to great disappointment from customers, and when coupled with virtually unconditional guarantees, led to disaster for the company. Almost the entire production for the year was returned.
The CA brand name was so tarnished by the fiasco that Eversharp dropped it by the end of 1947, with new ballpoints being offered under the completely different Reporter brand, which was also much cheaper, starting at US $1.00. The problems with the CA apparently had no effect on the Kimberly Pockette, a tiny pen the size of a cigarette, which used a different refill. Notably, the "Magic Sphere" feature was dropped from Kimberly Pockette advertisements in 1948.
Other pen makers, including Sheaffer, also entered the hot new ballpoint market, but the problems presented by the early success and fast failure of the Reynolds and Eversharp pens soured the public on ballpoints, and their unit sales, which briefly surpassed those of fountain pens, dropped rapidly to a second tier product, and fountain pens regained supremacy. Sheaffer's pen, the Stratowriter, was higher quality and better tested than the CA, but public distaste for the failed products slowed their acceptance.
Eversharp became so strapped by the investment made in rights, manufacturing, marketing, lawsuits, and the hit taken on returns, that the company never really recovered. By 1957, Eversharp exited the pen business, selling the pen division to Parker, and focusing on other consumer products under the Wahl name.
It probably was not until 1954, when Parker introduced the Jotter, the first Parker ballpoint pen, that the ballpoint really regained ground as a legitimate alternative to the fountain pen. The Parker Jotter refill was higher quality and wrote much longer than prior products and quickly became a best seller. The BIC company, founded in 1950 by Baron Bich, who shortened his name to make the company bearing it more marketable, eventually became the low-cost and low price point manufacturer, first dominating the European market with cheap ballpoint pens by the late 1950s and later conquering the world market. BIC products established the ballpoint as a cheap, throwaway writing tool, an entirely different concept than the very expensive pens offered in the mid 1940s, and as such, swung the entire pen market away from expensive long use pens to cheap "use and toss" pens. Disposable even became part of the marketing pitch. These new, cheap ballpoint pens moved the fountain pen from an everyday product to a high line and specialized product. Companies specializing in cheap fountain pens eventually abandoned the market.
Works Like Bad Magic
The "world's smoothest writing instrument" was supposed to write dry, without blotting, write with permanent ink "2 1/2 times better that Government standards" (this was, after all, right at the end of World War II), write underwater, and write on any material - "paper, linens, or textiles." It was supposed to be the Fisher Space Pen of the 1940s. The design was strong enough to write through six to eight carbons (another necessity of government and accounting work) and sealed to prevent leaking, even if shaken. These were big claims for a new product, and key to them was the design of the cartridge and "Magic Sphere" system. Magic was also the claim for Eversharp fountain pen feeds in the 1940s.
The CA was so named for its "capillary action" refill cartridge, which Eversharp had patented in the USA in 1945. Eversharp advertised the pen as refillable in 15 seconds and able to write for 3 years. The cartridges were quite expensive for the time, selling for US 50 cents each. The cartridges came in four colors: blue-black, red, green, and violet. Eversharp actually encouraged the swapping of cartridges for changing colors, which must have been frustrating in practice as they had a propensity to dry out. Interestingly, the "Magic Sphere" rotating ball is not integral with the cartridge, but is permanently mounted in the tip of the section. The cartridge has an open point that screws in to mate with the back of the ball in the tip of the section, making a solid seal to prevent leaking.
The seal is key. A good seat and the pen should write fine, without smearing or leaking. A bad seal and skipping or a mess is going to happen. The open cartridge was probably one of the key design flaws as it introduced a possible user installation error every time the pen was refilled. The cartridges themselves, not being sealed, are subject to dry out. It's no wonder that all following cartridge designs integrate the ball into the cartridge.
The cartridges came in sealed tubes that were only to be opened when needed, to prevent them from drying out, much like modern rollerball refills. This need becomes obvious when examining the cartridge, which has a open tip that screws in tight to the back of the rotating ball seat in the section, sealing it to prevent leaks. Leaving the cartridge laying about would likely cause it to dry out as it used a quick drying liquid ink formula more like a modern roller ball pen instead of the wax-like inks of modern ballpoints.
Can't Leak In Any Position
"Can't Leak In Any Position . . . right side up or upside down. Can't leak in a plane at any altitude" the advertisements proclaimed. Eversharp heavily advertised the new pen as the cleanest filling pen money could buy. The new ballpoint pen would eliminate all the wiping and inky fingers associated with fountain pens. White gloved hands were shown refilling the pen to emphasize this point. Too bad in practice that the pens not only leaked, but they skipped or failed to write at all.
The problem of clean filling would not be solved until the advent of the Sheaffer Snorkel in 1952, but by then, new reliable ballpoint pens were starting to make headway in the market, so this ultimate solution would prove to both herald the twilight of the fountain pen as the principal ink writing instrument and usher in a new age of inexpensive pens using throw away components, replacing a more expensive and more long use product.
The CA Skyline
The first version of the CA released by Eversharp in 1946 was a companion pen to the hugely popular Skyline. This pen followed the Skyline design completely and followed the current rollerball / fountain pen practice where the essential difference is the section. The CA section unscrews to allow access to the refill, which screws into it. The pen is most commonly found in the striped cap / plain body version, and sold for US $15.00. Sheaffer followed this design in their capped Stratowriter ballpoint pens, also using a screw-in refill.
The CA Fifth Avenue
The second CA model introduced was the Fifth Avenue CA, also in 1946. The Fifth Avenue line was introduced in 1944 to be the top Eversharp line and the fountain pen used a hooded nib, in order to compete with the Parker 51. The fountain pen model was not a success both from a capacity and design standpoint and and was discontinued by the end of 1946. CA Fifth Avenues continued to be advertised through 1947, sometimes in parallel with Skyline fountain pen. The CA Fifth Avenues complimented the fountain pen in the same way the Skyline model did, using the same design and also having a section that unscrews so that the refill can be replaced.
The cap of the pen snaps off, rather than screws off, as on the Skyline. This version of the pen sold for US $15.00 for the 14 karat gold filled cap pen alone, and was also offered at US $21.50 with the matching Fifth Avenue repeater pencil. The stainless cap model, with a 10 karat gold filled clip was US $8.75. The CA line was advertised with a price range of US $6.95 to US $100.00. As with the fountain pen, barrel colors include black, brown, burgundy, and gray.
As the fountain pen phased out and the ballpoint grew in popularity, the ballpoint was featured in sets with the matching pencil.
The CA Retractable
The third CA model was a stand-alone capless model called the CA Retractable, introduced in 1946. This pen offered a one handed retraction mechanism similar to a modern retractable ballpoint, such as a Parker cap-actuated ballpoint. The Sheaffer Stratowriter, a contemporary ballpoint pen, used a twist lock mechanism that really needs two hands to operate, both extending and retracting the point. The CA Retractable had simple, ease or use as a selling point.
The CA Retractable is a very large ballpoint, by today's standards. It's 5 1/2 inches long, and 3/8 inches in diameter. The pen is surprisingly lightweight for its size, but this is due to the somewhat thin metal construction, which is highly prone to dings. The design is very clean, with the only adornments being parallel lines down the cap and barrel, and hash marks on the clip. This model was offered in 14 karat all gold filled for US $25.00, a very high price for a pen in 1946. A gold cap / stainless barrel model was also offered.
This may be hard to believe, but I have two CAs that actually work, if the skippy, variable, weak lines they write could be called working. Imagine a trusty BIC Stick on its last legs and you'll get the picture. Two of the pens illustrated in the article, the Skyline and one of the Fifth Avenues work somewhat. Externally, they look exactly like their fountain pen siblings in every way when the caps are on. Caps removed, the only difference is the section, instead of having a nib stuck in it, tapers down to a metal cone tip with a large (for a modern ballpoint) metal ball tightly fitted in.
The Fifth Avenue is the bigger pen at about 5 1/8 inches long capped and 6 inches posted, while the Skyline is about 5 1/4 inches long capped and 5 3/8 inches posted, a standard size Skyline. The Skyline has a definite "retro" feel to it, almost as if it shouldn't be a ballpoint, not that it doesn't work from a design point of view, but that it looks like a modification rather than a clean original design. The Fifth Avenue looks fine either way, probably since the pen version is a hooded nib with a similar enough length and shaped section to where it isn't as jarring when the cap comes off. The high mounted clip on both makes them ride deeply in the pocket.
As to writing, well, don't expect to run out and replace your cheap BIC Sticks yet. These are lousy writers. I can't be overly critical of a bad design from nearly 60 years ago that shouldn't even work at all, but what they can do, they don't do that well. Skips, weak or varying lines, smears, and the like make me wish a modern refill would fit these pens, The permanent ball section probably prevents that from happening without serious surgery.
As with all Skylines and Fifth Avenues, these are well made pens that will polish up well and look really good when cleaned up. The detailing is very nice and both are very well made. The Fifth Avenue is a design that failed, and frankly, is pretty homely to me, but it's at least a well made pen. Both pens are well balanced in the hand capped or posted, and both have caps that post very securely and deeply.
CAs are not common pens, probably because they were heavily returned to Eversharp for replacement. The Fifth Avenue model is easier to find, with the Skyline and Retractable models being much more difficult. Fifth Avenues with solid gold or stainless steel caps will command the highest prices. Gold fill Fifth Avenues will be the least expensive, and can often be found at quite low prices.
I personally find the Skyline version to be the most attractive, and with the Sheaffer Stratowriter, one of two very early ballpoints that I wish could accept modern refills. Expect to see a range of prices based on the relative scarcity or materials used in these pens, which are drivers in the fountain pen versions of these same pens. Don't expect anything you find to work, as these are collectible more for their historic than user value. A pen to add to a 1940s Eversharp collection.
Convert Your Eversharp CA To A Working Modern Ballpoint!
One of our readers, Chris Fox, suggested we link this article to our November, 2002 PenInHand article on converting Eversharp CA ballpoints, Converting The Converted. Thanks, Chris!
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Last Update 8/23/04