While the gel pen doesn’t have the storied history of the ballpoint, it’s still quite interesting. The gel pen’s history is much briefer and clearer, so read on to learn all about the origins of one of the best pen types sold today.
Who Invented The Gel Pen?
The start of the gel pen is attributed to Japanese pen maker Sakura, who pioneered the gel ink technology after a multi-year research project. The goal of the research was to innovate on the recently invented rollerball, making the watery ink more versatile.
The research in what would become the gel pen started in the late 1970s. This was actually an innovation on the rollerball, which had been invented by Ohto. Sakura’s goal was to invent their own rollerball, which their competitors had done already, putting the company — Sakura Color Products Corporation — well behind their peer group.
How Was The Gel Pen Invented?
With rollerballs becoming more popular, it was clear to Sakura that they have fallen behind. Rather they start the race from behind, they aimed to create their own segment: gel ink. This ink would be water-based as well, but it would be thicken… somehow. This last part was the challenge as no one had yet to find the right method by which to thicken rollerball ink.
Sakura started their research in the early 1980s by researching thixotropic materials. Thixotropic materials are solid when not moving but becoming a liquid when they are agitated and will then start to flow as you’d expect.
The key to this was not only the concept but also the thickener. All sorts of materials were tried — from egg whites to grated yam, to seaweed — but nothing was able to do the job up to the demands of Sakura’s research and development team. In the end, a sharp-eyed employee saw a newspaper advertisement for a newly developed food additive called xanthan gum. The material was used as a thickener in jellies and soups.
This material was purchased, tested, and it worked wonderfully. A Japanese patent was filed on October 20, 1982. Between 1982 and 1984 the technology was developed and the gel pen became a viable product. The original US patent was US4471079A. The US patent was attributed to the inventor Shigekazu Enami.
As it would happen, Sakura still makes some of the top gel pens sold in 2021.
What Was The First Gel Pen Model?
According to Sakura, the first gel pen was the Ballsign 280. It originally used a dye-based ink — which is known for great color qualities, but not being water-safe — and later moved to a pigment-based ink with the Ballsign 150. The pigment suspended in the gel meant the ink could be great for art uses as it was nearly water-proof, something rollerballs can’t pull off!
Sakura had been producing pigment-based inks already, as they had starting producing the Pigma Micron (almost always known only as the Micron) finaliners, which started production in 1982.
In 1988 the most famous gel pen of the era, the Sakura Gelly Roll was introduced in Japan as the Ballsign 80. This name was not thought to be exciting for American consumers so the “Gelly Roll” name was created. This pen landed in the United States in 1989.