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How India taught herself to make good pens and ink

Jul 27, 2022

It seems strange that a country that frequently sends the world’s satellites into space couldn’t make good pens half a century ago

In the summer of 1961, Government of India was waiting for an expert from the United States. Not an agricultural scientist or a meteorologist but someone with knowledge of the fountain pen industry. India had completely stopped importing fountain pens in 1958, and by 1960 domestic production of pens had risen to 12 million pieces in the organised sector and 10 million in cottage industries. We made enough pens for our needs ( although nibs were 100% imported) but not always to an acceptable quality. So in 1961, Government of India turned to the US for a quality control expert.

It seems strange now that a country that frequently sends the world’s satellites into space couldn’t make good pens just half a century ago, but this is a part of India’s growing-up story.

Forget pens, we even needed help to make ink in the early years after Independence. By 1957 — 10 years after Independence — the import of ink had been banned for the same reason that foreign cars weren’t allowed in India. We wanted to be self-dependent in everything and save precious foreign exchange.

In 1957, India’s installed capacity for ink was 3.5 million boxes containing a dozen 2-ounce bottles each, while the demand was for only 0.9 million boxes. Still, foreign brands outnumbered the domestic ink makers. Pilot, Waterman, Quink, Stephens’ and Swan were the five foreign ink brands made and sold in India at the time. Of these, Pilot and Quink even had equity participation while the other three were made under technical collaboration. The four important homegrown brands were Camel, Sulekha, Harihar and Nuluk.

All of the ink factories in India imported some of their raw material like methylene blue, and the foreign collaborations also brought in their respective secret sauces.

Coming back to fountain pens, India used to import them from the US, UK, Australia, West Germany, France, Japan, etc, but to encourage domestic manufacturing, the government had decided that pens that cost less than Rs 25 apiece would not be imported. This spurred the growth of factories in Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata and the town of Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh. By the mid-1950s there were 12 Indian manufacturers, of whom Rajahmundry- based Ratnam & Sons were the oldest and most famous.

But the quality of most early Indian manufacturers was iffy, so in 1956 the government approved two foreign collaborations — with Pilot and Waterman, respectively. The government hoped that the joint venture factories would make world-class pens for as little as Rs 10 apiece, but in a few years it felt the need to improve quality across the industry and called in an American technical expert.

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The manufacture of ballpoint pens started even later, although the foreign maker of ‘Biro’ pens had offered to set up a factory as early as 1953. The government had rejected that offer because the company wanted 49% stake in the joint venture and a high percentage of royalty.

The first approval to make ballpoint pen ink in India was granted in 1962 for a joint venture between Dhirajlal Mohanlal Joshi, a businessman based in Rajkot, Gujarat, and M/s Formulabs Inc of Escondido, California. Asked whether the ink could have been made in India without a foreign collaboration, the government frankly admitted it was not possible.

Today, banks recommend that you sign cheques with a ballpoint to prevent fraud, but back in the 1960s ballpoint pens were not allowed for many uses in India. You could fill out a money order with a ballpoint but the payee had to sign with a fountain pen. Bills, government cheques and endorsements made on government cheques all had to be signed with fountain pens.

The rules have been completely rewritten in the years since.

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