Planned Obsolescence and the Bic Effect – Part 6

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Part 6 in a series on planned obsolescence.

In 1953 Marcel Bich formed an inventive pen company named Société Bic. Based in Clichy, France – a Paris suburb – this enterprising gentleman was ready to launch a remarkable new approach to writing, a disposable ballpoint pen called the Bic Cristal. The company name was a shortened version of his name, one that would be easier to pronounce and remember. Not only did the truncation make an easy to remember name, the world of writing consumers and the stationery industry would never again be the same.

The low-cost Bic wrote as well – and often better – than more expensive pens and could be tossed out when the ink cylinder went empty. Best of, it was remarkably cheap. When the product was finally launched on American soil in 1960, the price tag tallied a hard-to-beat 19 cents.

In short order the name of Bic was equated with the rising popularity of inexpensive disposable products – an emerging trend. The list of wares ran the gamut, from razors to disposable cameras.  Unlike Brooke Stevens’ adage involving a product that was newer and slightly better, the world of disposables simply involved low cost and the ability to produce at a massive scale.

The primary material making disposable products economically possible was plastic, a far-fetched material concept heard in Dustin Hoffman’s 1960s film, “The Graduate,” when a martini-toting businessman quipped at a cocktail party, “The future’s in plastics.”

Even if such concept may once have seemed crass and shallow, especially to a young generation wanting to reconnect with the earth, love, drugs and sexual experimentation, these words were prescient. Plastic, in about as many formulations as can be imagined, has indeed been fundamental in making a majority of products leaving the drawing board today.

Regardless of a “sometime-far-in-the-future” vanishing ingredient consideration, plastics engineers, industrial designers and entrepreneurs designed for a no-holds-barred future using the diminishing resource of petroleum. Plastic became a staple of modern life, from credit cards to cars to bottles and packaging. The material cost was ridiculously low and nobody has yet sounded the alarm for limited availability.

Before most people even thought about plastics as part of a recycling stream, the majority of what obsolescent or used plastics ended up in the trashcan en route to the dump. What’s most remarkable, there is little concern that the product was as disposable as a paper bag.

Like many new-age disposable products, the BIC Cristal ballpoint pen makes a case study for a remarkably well-designed product – inexpensive, simple, reliable, and something that could be tossed into the trash can without second thought, knowing the next pen would be just as reliable.

The pen is a study of industrial design innovation, having secured a display at Its hexagonal shape was taken from the wooden pencil and yields an economical use of plastic along with strength and three grip points giving high writing stability. The pen’s transparent polystyrene barrel shows the ink-level. A tiny hole drilled in the barrel’s body keeps the same air pressure both inside and outside the pen. The thick ink is pulled down by gravity from a tube inside the barrel to feed a ball bearing, which spins freely within a metal tip.

So somewhere around 150 billion pens later, Société Bic has grown to now manufacture lighters, shavers, stationery, water sports, and phones. As for negative notions about throwaway items, the pen said to be one of the world’s most efficient pens, able to write over 100,000 words.

Philosophically Bic products – plus those of its many competitors – are designed to provide “easy answers for everyday needs.” Which all seems like a smooth evolution of what planned obsolescence meant. Where to next, is the question that begs to be asked.

About this report: The following series on planned obsolescence is taken from a book Glenn Meyers presently writing, “The Growth Quotient.” Here is an archive of these posts:

  1. The Greatest Invention: Planned Obsolescence – Part 1
  2. The Freight Train for Planned Obsolescence Jumps to High-Speed Tracks – Part 2
  3. Moore’s Law & Planned Obsolescence Construct a Technology Traffic Jam: Part 3
  4. Planned Obsolescence & the Bubble That Burst: Part 4
  5. Unplanned Obsolescence & the Texas Back Roads: Part 5
  6. Planned Obsolescence and the Bic Effect – Part 6
  7. The Evolution of Planned Obsolescence: Innovation’s Litter – Part 7

Photos: Bic car in Beost, France & child carrying recyclables from Shutterstock

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