Having perfected the ball-point,
Paul Fisher wrote a plan to save the world
Text and Photo by Anthony DeBartolo
- Paul Fisher is working the
Products Show at
Place like a backyard politician. He's slapping hands with his right,
into his suit's inside breast pocket with his left. "Have I given you
of my pens yet?" he asks.
The pens are not embossed "Vote for Fisher," though. They just say Fisher. As a bottle of cognac might say Remy Martin, or a bar of soap might say Dial. Fisher is the brand name. Paul Fisher, 77, makes pens.
That is not to say this chairman of the Forest Park-based Fisher Pen Co. is not also a politician. He made two bids for Congress, in 1954 and 1986, and ran in the 1960 New Hampshire Presidential Primary against John F. Kennedy. Some might contend that qualifies Fisher as a politico, although Kennedy was unimpressed.
During a rally for JFK, the Tribune reported that Fisher, a "Chicago pen manufacturer and only rival of the Massachusetts senator on the ballet in Tuesday's contest, vaulted over the press table onto the stage here at the University of New Hampshire when school officials tried to restrain him." Fisher demanded equal time. An embarrassed Kennedy, eventually acquiesced.
Before launching into his prepared speech, however, Kennedy reportedly stated, "I'm delighted Mr. Fisher is here today… The Constitution provides the President must be American born-an American citizen-and 35 years of age. These qualifications Mr. Fisher and I have in common."
To be fair, outside the political realm Fisher has some qualifications even a Kennedy couldn't touch. For one, he is a creatively gifted engineer. The Henry Ford of the ball-point pen industry, you could say.
Among his pioneering efforts: tooling the machines that helped perfect the ball-point`s tip and co-inventing, right up there with Teflon and Tang, one of the more handy (it writes upside down) trickle-down aerospace technologies - the pressurized Space Pen. NASA might have put a man on the moon, but Fisher made sure he could write home.
Today, Fisher is back to
he does best: making and selling pens. When he`s not raising
that is. For Fisher will always be an offbeat political
Libertarian in outlook, ardent in deed, a
A man convinced the only way we can avoid economic ruin - indeed, ensure the survival of our species - is to apply the same "scientific technique" to our nation's ills that he utilized to perfect the ball-point pen, succeed in business, and generally straighten out his life. Zen and the Art of Ball-Point Maintenance, if you will.
His book, though, is called "The Plan." Although self-published in 1988, the importance of its elementary tenet - "the need to achieve complete accuracy of observation, thought and analysis" - first came to Fisher in 1951 after the three-year-old pen company he initially founded on Waveland Avenue, two blocks east of Wrigley Field, was near bankruptcy.
"But I was young and healthy and said, 'The heck with it.' Even though I thought the sheriff was going to tack a sign on my door any day, I went down to the Ozarks, and took my family with me," says Fisher, who also maintains a 30,000-square-foot research and assembly plant in Boulder City, Nev., 22 miles southeast of Las Vegas. Like the butchers and bakers of old, he lives above the shop. In his case, a 4,000-square-foot apartment.
While contemplating his business fate, Fisher fell back upon his practical, and quite notable, successes as an engineer.
He had, after all, played a major role in breaking a production bottleneck of blade-retention bearings for airplane propellers at the start of World War II. An esoteric sounding part perhaps, but desperately needed. Airplanes, said Fisher, were backed up at manufacturing plants for want of those ball bearings.
A Chicago firm on west Schubert Avenue, "the Aetna Ball Bearing Manufacturing Co., was so far behind production, in 1942 the Air Corps came and said if they couldn't find someone able to straighten things out, they were going to take the whole company away from them," says Fisher, who was working for Aetna as a consultant at the time. Subsequently, he got the nod, and got those ball bearings rolling again.
Fisher could also draw upon his work with the first ball pen marketed in America in 1945 by merchandiser Milton Reynolds.
"Reynolds had been bringing lighters in from Mexico, and he went down to Argentina and found this ball-point pen invented by Laslow Biro," Fisher explains.
(Biro, by the way, a
native of Budapest,
worked as an editor there in the 1930s for a weekly magazine.
Having grown overly annoyed with his fountain pen tearing newsprint
while correcting them, he
While on vacation, Biro showed his invention to an attentive fellow traveler who turned out to be the President of Argentina, Augustin P. Justo. Duly impressed, Justo invited Biro to set up a plant in Buenos Aires. With war imminent in Europe, Biro wisely seized the offer, arriving in 1940. Four years later, his 'Eterpen' was on the local market.)
"So Reynolds bought a bunch of these pens, came back to Chicago and hired a fellow to copy it for him," Fisher says. "It came on the market right after the war."
"By this time I had quite a reputation as an engineer," he adds. "So they asked my help (to improve it). I took a couple home and wrote with them for two or three days, gave them back and said, these pens are no good. The basic principle is not sound, and I'll have no part of it."
Even so "Reynolds made
profit in three months on this no-good pen," Fisher says.
introduced it in New York at Gimbel's. The pens were so
people were lined up a block long in
"The ink had acid in it. A year later you could wet your thumb and transfer a signature from one sheet of paper to another. It never dried. It leaked out the front end, and leaked out the back end. It was really a piece of junk."
At the behest of one of his best friends, a fellow engineer whom Reynolds had hired, Fisher eventually took on the task of improving the product. That is not to say he wound up with a good pen. The ink was still prone to leak a little and smear a lot. But through Fisher's engineering, the price dropped from $10.50 to 39 cents apiece. The ink was the chemist's problem.
By 1948, after word and enough ink had spread, Reynolds couldn't sell them for even 39 cents. "So I went to Milton and said, 'You gave me the job of perfecting the ball pen. Now you're out of business. Somebody will perfect this pen some day, and I want to stay in it and play a part.' I said, 'Do you mind if I start my own pen company.' He said, 'No, go ahead.' "
Fisher's first solo effort, the bullet pen (because of its shape), was a hit. Still is. It remains one of the best-represented items within his company's annual sales of more than $7 million.
(The estimated wholesale value of all ball-point pens sold in 1989, including imports and exports, exceeded $560 million, according to the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association Inc. With only four or five firms accounting for more than 70 percent of total sales, Fisher's trade is considered respectable for a small, privately owned manufacturer.)
"At the time, the bullet pen was probably the best ball pen on the market," Fisher maintains. "I made a better point and had a better way of holding the ink.. I put a trap on top, so it was less likely to leak.."
Its celebrated contour, distinctive enough to be on display at New York's Museum of Modern Art, was due solely to Fisher's bent for carrying his pen in his pants pocket. It fit.
Having perhaps the best pen on the market, however, did not ensure financial success. After three years in business, Fisher had a net worth of "minus $30,000. . .it still wasn't a great pen." So off to the Ozarks he went.
"If a machine is to run
he reasoned, "it must be tooled and set up accurately. No
way works. If it does work, then it is proper, and that is the
I looked at my business and discovered
To retool, Fisher
developed 27 rules
to live by. From simple lessons in hygiene ("Cultivate good
and physical well-being by regular hours, daily
and exercise…") to hard lessons of history
But the base insight for this engineer was the need for accuracy in all things. The "scientific technique," he concluded, "was the common sense approach to the solution of any problem."
At the end of the retreat in the Ozarks, Fisher had what he would later describe as the "most important book of our time," but which was then only a 63-page pamphlet. But its topic was a grand one - how to wipe out the federal deficit - and its conclusion, as later revised in his 353-page paperback, "The Plan," was: abolish all income and Social Security taxes, and tax everyone's assets in excess of $100,000 instead. Including churches, schools, even the federal government itself. "It'll make it easier to get rich, but harder to stay that way. It was basically Thomas Jefferson's idea," says the seemingly altruistic, and honorable, multimillionaire.
But he decided not to publish the pamphlet then. "I didn't want people to say, if Paul Fisher thinks he's so smart, why isn't he rich," he says.
Instead of pontificating, he produced. Three months after returning from the Ozarks, Fisher made back the $30,000. Within the year, he paid off the $24,000 bank loan that got him started.
By 1953, Fisher proved his point (he also brought in a couple of chemists to improve his ink) and got rich, thanks to the immediate success of his patented "One-For-All" pen refill. It broke off at different lengths to fit all 15 major pens marketed at the time, so dealers needed only to stock Fishers.
They were also more dependable, Fisher says. "They wrote a little better. Sales went from $2,000 a month to more than $100,000."
Fisher might have published his pamphlet at that point, had he not found himself in the pen, rather than making them. In 1954, his Libertarian leanings landed him in Cook County Jail.
During a routine check two years prior, the Illinois Department of Labor informed Fisher his occasional employ of home workers was against the law. He didn't have a license. "So I had to let the (two young mothers who lived across from the factory) go, because I couldn't afford to pay the $200 (license fee)," he explains.
The Federal Labor Department's wage and hour division eventually sent an agent on a follow-up call. "Incidentally, the morning the agent arrived, I received some literature from the Bill of Rights Committee about a banquet," Fisher recalls. "Included was a copy of the first 10 Amendments of the Constitution. I had just finished reading them, particularly the Fourth Amendment."
"So I asked the agent if he thought I violated the law. Had there been any complaints? And he said, no, none at all. This is strictly routine."
"I said, well, according to the Fourth Amendment - I read it to him - you have to have probable cause before you can demand to look at my records." (Fisher was operating as a sole proprietorship at the time, not as a corporation, and he considered the records personal property.)
"Tell you what you do," he told the agent. "You write me a letter that you suspect I may have violated a law, and I'll consider that probable cause," he offered. The letter he subsequently received was from the district supervisor "calling me down to his office."
Fisher went and explained his position. "He asked me why I was so recalcitrant? I looked up, and here was a picture of Thomas Jefferson on the wall. I said, because I believe I have certain inalienable rights. With that he interrupted me and said, `Mr. Fisher, you as an individual have no inalienable rights. You live in a democracy subject to the will of the majority, and the will of the majority, through an act of Congress can deprive you of any right.'
"Well, I got a little hot under the collar, and I jumped up and said: `I'm going to teach you a lesson. I'll show you whether I have any rights or not.' That was the beginning."
What followed was a court order to surrender his books and several denied appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court twice refused to review the case. "I just felt they were wrong, and I wasn't going to comply," he says.
Found in contempt, he was jailed. Fisher held out for two weeks and became national news.
Time magazine called him "a stubborn man." While in jail, he called himself a Republican candidate for Illinois' 9th Congressional District. The nominating committee, though, withheld its endorsement. As did most voters when he ran for a Nevada congressional seat in 1986. While he has no plans to run for another office ("I might win next time") he is seeking a Presidential candidate to utilize his tax plan as a platform in the '92 race.
The Tribune's report of Fisher's first day in jail noted he "slept well in a cell in the federal prisoners' tier, had a breakfast of oatmeal, coffee, and rolls and spent the morning talking to fellow inmates in the day room. He had chop suey for lunch."
"I don't remember that," Fisher says. "But the inmates did tell me they had never eaten so good until I arrived."
(Editor's Note: Paul Fisher, who became our dear friend,
on October 20, 2006,
This article first appeared in the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine on April 28, 1991
© 1991 Hyde Park Media
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