My father once has a Parker 45, a daily workhorse for an engineer like him. Later when I found out that Hero 800 is exactly in the same physical dimension and even interchangeable with Parker, I was quite amazed. But I wasn’t aware there was an intriguing history behind them, a story anything but merely another Chinese copycat.
The original version of this article from Zhao Songsheng was first published in the China Writing Instrument, vol. 1, 2001. I have seen some partially translated scripts in FPN, but there is still not a complete version of it. In editing this article, I have modified some subtle errors by original author and tried my best to keep the original style of it.
The Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the Communism Party of China in 1979 started the reform and opening efforts of China. Famous international manufacturers were then seeking ways to get into the Chinese market tentatively. As for fountain pen maker Parker, despite the fact it had made itself the most popular international pen brand in China with its reputation-winning gold nib pens as early as in the 1940s, like many other foreign merchandise, Parker has been “driven” out of the mainland since the 50s, for the well-known reason. During that time, a Parker pen could only “infiltrated” to the Chinese mainland via passengers or other non-commercial channels from its branch in Hong Kong. Then in the late 70s, foreseeing the Chinese market’s opening following the economy reform, as a result of the noted Third Plenary Session of the CPC, Parker Pen Company decided to move fast to regain its Chinese market.
First, senior management personnel from Parker visited the Shanghai Hero Pen Factory, trying to peek into the Chinese pen industry and pick local partners in developing Chinese market. In addition to that, in Guangzhou, Parker opened a maintenance department with significant momentum through press coverage. Seeing those movements, some of our peers in the fountain pen industry cried out– “the wolf is coming!”
In the summer of 1979, a small delegation led by Bai Weijie, General Manager of Parker’s Hong Kong Branch, visited the Hero Pen Factory for the first time. Considerable attention was paid to receipt this delegation. In addition to the leadership of Pen Company and Hero Pen Factory, some technical personnel, including me, were also chosen to receipt them. After its meeting with our leadership, the delegation held a panel with our technical staff. Mr. Bai used a slide projector to introduce Parker’s background and products and then answered some questions. The delegation was very satisfied with our warm welcome and the earnest exchanging of ideas.
During the movement of Great Leap Forward in 1958, the Hero Fountain Pen Factory prompted a strong slogan, “let Hero surpass the Parker”; this slogan once become some headline stories of major newspaper in Shanghai, it was even adapted into an influential film later. Parker should be aware of this part of history already, but during Mr. Bai’s visit, both sides avoid this topic and expressed a well-intentioned friendship to each other. They leave a great impression to our faculty through their visit to the production plant and interaction with technical staff. During the panel, we discussed the possibility of further exchanges and cooperation between us. The delegation told us happily that they were willing to brief the headquarters our desire to cooperation.
At that time, our factory had no autonomous right to carry out an international deal of trade or technical cooperation, all of which should be conducted through the system of international trading. The Shanghai Light Industry Import and Export Corporation (later the Shanghai Culture and Sports Import and Export Company) was in charge of all the export of Hero’s product at that time. Therefore, it was also chosen as the channel for our business relationship with Parker.
In 1979, three delegations from Parker Pen Company visited us; among them the most important was the one lead by a Parker veteran, the vice president Hull (Philip Hull) in the May. It was the first high-level delegation from a major international pen brand we had ever receipted that time. Showing our sincerity, we opened the whole plant to our visitors except the laboratory and the electrolytic polishing section of the nib workshop. Hull and his colleagues spent half of a day studying the plant with the accompany from the factory director Tang Hailong. Along his studying, several anecdotes took place.
During the tour to the nib workshop, Hull was quite impressed by Hero’s in-house-developed automatic iridium point grinding and inspecting machine and asked us whether they could take picture of it. Tang refused his enquiry politely, and Hull said humorously: “Some time ago I demanded Parker’s technical staff to design and create a machine with similar functionality, and now I have found one in your plant.”
When the trip at the nib workshop came to an end, Hull asked Tang: ” The whole manufacturing process of a nib is not finished yet, do we have anything more to see?” Clearly, he is a pro, and he was obviously referring to the electrolytic polishing process, without which the iridium head of a nib won’t be smooth and let a pen to write fluently. The electrolytic polishing process was a new technology developed by ourselves.
In the assembly plant, Hull studied our automatic loading machine, auto bile-tube assembly machine, semi-automatic tip rubber machine, etc., and was moved by the fact that all of the machines were developed in-house. “Those machines have your own characteristics. Ours are different from you for we are producing through an assembly line, with assembly equipment and tools lining on the assembly line.” He said emotionally.
That visit assures the intention of cooperation between the two sides, and the manufacturing of Parker 45 fountain pens was designated to be the first project after our discussion. The two sides agreed that the Hero Pen Factory will commit to the trail production of model 45 using the blueprint and processing information provided by Parker, and after the products’ passing the quality test in Parker headquarter further orders of manufacturing Parker 45 fountain pens in China will be placed, then the Parker would be accountable for the buying and distribution of all the final products.
Early into the next months, three sets related material of Parker 45 fountain pens arrived. They were: one set of production process drawings, one set of quality standards and testing methods, and one about equipment and instrument. At that time, I was a processing engineer within the technical section and was in charge of leading the trial production team, set up by the factory headquarter, to produce Parker 45 fountain pens. To enable the cross-department-level cooperation within the factory and industrial level cooperation outside, director Tang made himself the advisor of this project. He also designated deputy director, Yin, to be responsible for coordination.
First of all, I spent a little more than two weeks translating and editing the three sets of material into over 30,000 words, which could be divided into three sections–product blueprint and technical requirements; manufacturing processes and equipment; and quality standards and testing methods. At the same time, I briefed the staff member of trial group and leaders of workshops over the project based on the information of Parker 45 provided. My briefing was framed around four major dimension of Parker 45: product structure, material requirements, the tolerance of component design, and the highlights of processing during production.
At the time, I thought there were four main technology gap between our status and Parker’s requirements:
- In addition to the sound design, the proper functionality of a fountain pen’s feeding system should also be guaranteed through the actual processing;
- While the manufacturing tolerance of components could be defined as of meeting the interchangeability or not, Parker demands high standard for the interchangeability, ensuring any piece of parts could be arbitrarily interchanged;
- Various kinds of materials were used to make specific parts. For all the sixteen parts of a Parker 45, four kinds of stainless steel and five kinds of plastics were used;
- Parker’s injecting molding technology was very advanced. The feed and water reservoir are all made through cavity injection molding in one-time. Contrary to Parker, we were still using the mechanical methods to make the feeding channel, ring groove of our feed and reservoir.
The trial production began in July, with attention to the nib, the molding of feed and reservoir, the moisturizing treatment of the plastics of feeding system, and the manufacturing tolerance of the parts, and the technology requirement of assembling. We invited the Parts Factory No.2,3, and 4 into assisting the trial production of pen clip, ink container, and steel sleeve sets.
After nearly two months of intense work, the first batch of samples was made in September. Although only eight pens were made, we were jubilant with it and became more confident. Two sample pens were then sent to Parker’s headquarters in the United States. In October, Parker’s Quality Inspection and Testing Department sent us a report, with a series number No. 8 and was signed by F. E. Beck. It took less than a month for Parker to compile this report, which was evident to us that they were quite engaged in this cooperation project.
The main contents of the test report are as follows:
- Appearance analysis:
- No obvious defects were found for the barrels and caps;
- Small spots (pores) were found across the coating of the clip;
- The clip-screw and the caps were improperly assembled;
- The writing of the trademark “Made in U.S.A” was not clear enough, especially for the character M and A.
- Performance analysis:
- According to Parker’s standard, the maxim weighting capacity for a pen clip should fall between 0.3 to 0.5 pounds before it bends obliquely. However, the clips from our sample were both unqualified, scoring only 0.1 lbs. and 0.2 lbs. respectively. No test of clipping strength was made;
- As for the writing performance, both of the two pens could write immediately after an overnight interval;
- As for the flowing rate of ink, a standard Parker pen with an EF nib should be able to generate ink at a rate of 0.15~0.35g/hour, while one sample pen scored 0.23g/hour, the other one missed the requirement with 0.13g/hour, resulting in weak lines of writing. Both of the pens did not skip during the test.
- As for the altitude test, Parker’s standard demands a pen functions well up until getting a height of 3500-feet. The first testing run of the two pens resulted in a 3800-feet and a 2400-feet respectively, and the second run was a 3800-feet and a 2100-feet.
In the end, the report said that due to the limited number of pens sent to Parker, they were unable to make further testing such as the material test. To fully inspect the quality of our trail products, 20 finished pens and extra 50 sets of components were needed.
After analyzing this testing report received, our team of trail production sorted out the solutions to improve the problems revealed and decided to move for a mid-size trial production this time. This mid-size trailing was aiming at the goal of 200 sets of components along with 50 finished pens assembled from those parts. Brand new molds with the capability for an officially running for a mass production were made, ranging from the automatic continuous feed molds for tip blanking, engraving, punching, concave structure et al to the injection molds for the feed and the ink reservoir.
Good news from Parker was sent to us, who were then starting the mid-size trial production, through the Import and Export Corporation, on the 23rd, November, 1979. It was a letter of intention, implying the size of the future order for this project. It included the following items:
- 90,000 Parker 45 with plastic barrel (18,000 of them come with ink sacs, and the rest come without);
- 37,000 Parker 45 with steel barrel;
- 150,000 pieces of 10k gold nib;
- 250,000 pieces of ink sacs for Parker 45.
This intentional order absolutely inspired us. Starting in the November, 1979, the mid-size trial production became a success by the end of the Feb next year. During the three-month-long diligent work, we waived our Chinese New Year holiday for the trail production. In the end, we meet our initial goal of producing 200 sets of qualified components, and all the members who were working for the trial project, including those from joining factories, were congratulating each other with excitement. From the final products, 40 finished pens and 60 sets of components were assembled and sorted out, from which 24 finished pens and 48 sets of components were chosen to be sent to Parker.
A full-scale testing was made by Parker this time, and regarding this batch of products, Mr. Peck from Quality Inspection and Testing Department issued the testing report, No. 18, on May 1st, 1980. The report was consisting of four parts:
- The Visual Inspection：
a) The plastic components were not sleek enough; not acceptable;
b) The surface treatment of the cap was rather excellent, with a subtle pattern that was finer and more shining than Parker’s; acceptable;
c) The tolerance of cap and barrel were unacceptable since some caps were too tight to be completely covered by the trim ring on the barrel, while some of them were way too loose.
d) The tipping point of the arrow-shape clip was too sharp; a little modification could make it acceptable.
e) The plating of the metal was acceptable.
- The Performance Testing:
a) Non-writing performance:
- The clipping strength of clip was not qualified; unacceptable;
- Both the capping and uncapping friction produced were too weak; unacceptable;
b) Writing performance:
- The flow-rate testing: consistent lines that meet Parker’s standard were produced by those pens; acceptable;
- The ability of overnight intermittent writing: all pens functioned well overnight, up to Parker’s standard; acceptable;
- Altitude test with nibs pointing down: all the pens met the standards; acceptable;
- The smoothness and roundness of the nib (feeling in hand): all the pens wrote smoothly; acceptable.
- The ink capacity test: the average capacity was in line with Parker’s standards; acceptable.
- Material Analysis:
a) The ABC material used for the plastic components was different from Parker’s choice. (The plastic we used for making the barrel, grip, and the mouth of ink reservoir was China-developed plastic, code name plastic-372, and the ABC material was chosen for other parts).
b) The 304-stainless-steel used for the nib was not resistant to corrosion; unacceptable.
- Accuracy analysis of components:
- Of the 16 parts in a pen, 14 of them were not interchanging-friendly, failing to meet Parker’s requirement of high tolerance; improvement was needed.
In the end, the report wrote: the ability to write fluently without skipping was the most prominent strength of this batch of products.
A supplementary report, no.22, was sent from the quality inspection and testing department from Parker on July 1st, 1980. It contained two points:
1, Having been immersed into the ink at a temperature of 140°F for three weeks, the strength, gloss and ink adhesion of the ink reservoir along with its jacket, and the sac of the pens remained the same, showing no damage. Thus, here they were qualified.
2, The resistance from ink corrosion of the nib’s iridium tipping was in line with Parker’s requirement, and the wearing out rate of the nib was at the same level with the Parker 45 made in the U.S. Thus, here they were qualified.
Report no. 18, together with report no.22 gave us a comprehensive assessment for our mid-size trial production.
To express our confidence and sincerity in pursuing this OEM (and processing according to buyer’s samples) cooperation with Parker, we sent 24 revised samples to them on 6th, December, 1980, with a letter stating:
Regarding to an agreement made during the vice president Hull’s visit on May 28, 24 finished pens in three-color (black, red and blue) are presented here for the final quality appraisal;
Based on the reports no.18 and no.22 from your esteemed company, we think the main technical parameters of Parker45 fountain pens made by Hero are now in line with your standards, especially for the main performance indicator. The preparation for the formal mass production has been accomplished.
Shortly after Mr. Bai Weijie’s visit in 1979, Parker sent a letter to Shanghai Pen Company and Hero Pen Factory, inviting us to have a study tour at its headquarter. After finishing necessary preparation, a five-member delegation led by Zhu Yongli (from Shangai Pen Company) made its departure on 26th, April, 1980. An engineer from Shanghai Pen Company, Teng Mingda, along with the director of Hero Pen Factory, Tang Hailong, were in this team.
The headquarter of Parker was in Janesville, Wisconsin, near Chicago, with about 800 employees, including around 200 seasonal workers. Parker also had manufacturing facilities in the UK and France at that time. In front of the headquarter building, flags representing more than 60 countries and regions were hanging in the sky, indicating its global distribution network. A red five-star flag of the People’s Republic of China was added, welcoming us.
According to Parker’s annual report, the sales revenue of 1979 was 538 million dollars, with a net profit of 28.79 million dollars. Their 160-people research centre, including 30 senior research personnel (ranging from engineers, technicians to masters and doctors), was indicating the great attention Parker’s leadership was paying to the R&D work. Under the research centre, a trial production workshop was set up.
Vice president Hull received us at the airport, and Parker’s president, E. W. Swanson, along with the vice president of technology, J. Deleplangue, welcomed us at the hotel lobby, showing Parker’s hospitality and attention upon our visit. During the six-day-visit, we have seen Parker’s research centre, department of quality inspection and testing, department of mold-making, sales department (including both domestic and foreign transportation) and warehouses. We also visit different workshops related to the making of the spare parts for fountain/ball pens, the workshop of plating, and the assembly shop. Several panel discussions were also held between us and Parker’s leadership.
During the discussion, representatives in charge of this project from Parker mentioned following issues:
1, The department of quality inspection and testing briefed us the testing results of the samples sent to them, and the content was the same as the no.18 report issued by Beck.
2, The material used by Hero to produce the nibs and clips were unqualified. To speed up the project, the department of manufacturing will offer the very kind of stainless steel and copper for the nibs and clips to Hero, with the approval from Parker’s leadership.
3, Vice President Hull gave us a speech that hit the mark; the main contents are as follows:
The quality of the two batches of samples sent from Hero performed better than Parker’s anticipation.
Some of the quality requirements briefed to you just now are negotiable, while some of them are not. Hero must improve the material quality of nibs and ensure the tolerance of components meet interchangeability.
Parker has two main characters: one is the strict requirement for the molds, and the other is the fineness during process.
I have been in many pen factories around the world, such as Sheaffer’s, Cross, Pelikan and Montblanc. However, none of them was as good as Parker. The pen industry in Japan and China is good, but from my perspective, the Chinese pen manufacturers still have a long way to go. The problems such as the unreasonable processing methods, inefficient assembly lines, outdated tooling and molding equipment still widely exist among Chinese makers. I would like to help you to do a better job. Besides, I think you guys can solve those issues but you haven’t done it yet. Is there an employment issue prevent you from doing that?
In the future, Parker will set up a technical department to take the job of exporting technology and support. Out president makes it clear that in the future production of Parker 45, our vice president of technology will oversee technology, and the vice president of Asia-Pacific will be responsible for the trading.
4, Parker’s Vice President of Technology, J. Deleplangue then asked, “A trade should be both equal and mutual-beneficial; what do you want to buy from us if we place the manufacturing order?”
With this last issue of being “equal and mutual-beneficial” we have our own difficulties. At that time, regarding our factory, importing merchandise is an activity entirely different from exporting it. Since we did not consult the relevant governmental agency before our departure, we did not respond to Mr. Deleplangue’s question straight.
Later when we got back in China and asked relevant governmental agency, their succinct reply was that Hero cannot use the dollars we earned through manufacturing pens to pay the imports (merchandise or equipment) directly. In addition, the import contract shouldn’t be signed off unless it has been registered and approved by the government.
Although we did issue our expression of interest over importing some project-related molds and testing equipment to Parker, no further discussion followed up this time. This may probably due to the reason that our proposal falls short of their anticipation of “equality and mutual benefit”.
We still don’t know whether Parker had conducted the quality testing of the latest batch of samples (24 finished type 45 pens) sent on October 6, even after sending several inquiries to them. Finally, at the end of 1980, through the Shanghai Light Industry Import and Export Corporation, Parker gave us a verbal message, informing us the suspension of the project of Parker 45, and apologized to us. No reason was given regarding the suspension. They said Parker deeply appreciated our diligence and effective works during the trial production in the past months and because we did not charge Parker for the trial production, Parker would like to present the related products, mold blueprints, and files of processing and technology of Parker 45 previously offered to us as a gift to Hero, as a kind of compensation.
Words can’t explain how eager we were to make this cooperation with Parker happen successfully. As for me, I have been through the eras of “Hero Surpassing the Parker” as well as this official trailing production of the Parker 45, both were aiming to raise Hero’s technology up to a leading international level. In the former case, we defined our goal based on our assumption and pursued it with our door closed, while in the latter case, we set our target clearly and fight for it in earnest.
As for our technical staff, they were two completely different experiences to us; the former one was sustained by a political enthusiasm, the latter one was based both on the scientific methods and the contest of craftsmanship, which turned out to be of tremendous help for Hero to catch up with the leading international players.
For a long time, the leadership and technical faculties at Hero want to know why Parker suspended this project. After retrieving information from different channels, we think the following reasons played important roles:
In the first place, considering the idea prompted by Parker that this trade should be equal and mutual-beneficial, their goal may be entering the domestic market of China. However, the Chinese economic reform just started at that time. China’s international trade policy was far from perfect, and the ideology of Chinese people was way too conservative, which makes us extremely hard to make a deal with Parker autonomously. Encountering the obstacle entering Chinese market through such a deal with Hero, Parker might have lost the motivation to push the cooperation forward at some moment.
Secondly, despite its significant growth rate during the 60s and 70s, (especially for the over 20 per cent average YoY growth rate during the 70s), Parker was undergoing a shrinkage of the market size of global fountain pen, entering the 1980s. According to their original plan, to cut the expense, Parker would distribute pens made by Hero among the far-east Asia markets, including Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Korean and mainland China. Otherwise the pens would be manufactured back in the U.S. or Britain factories and shipped to Asia. Due to the changes of market, specifically the shrinkage of overall sales of fountain pens and the obstacle they had encountered in China, this plan turned out to be hopeless.
At that time, the main product of Parker was fountain pens under the category of writing instruments. The market’s shift forced Parker’s leadership to investigated into a structural adjustment for their line-up. Furthermore, most Parker’s production was done in its U.S headquarter, and the new factory planned in China might be a source of pressure over its original American workforce.
History confirmed our assumption. In the year 1984, with a shifting of its major shareholders, Parker moved its headquarter from the U.S. to the United Kingdom, and its UK factory got intensified to boost the production of roller balls. In fact, around the year 1980, Parker’s top decision-makers were developing their strategy in the 80s and the year 1980 happened to be the year in which they were still unable to make up their mind.
Thirdly, the main executing force of the project was the vice president Hull, who retired soon after his visit to Hero for aging issues. Having overseen manufacturing and technical works in Parker for a long time, Mr. Hull is a warm-tempered veteran, a man of candour, and has significant influence within the company. His retirement must have affected the cooperation between Hero and Parker.
Above are the explanation we reached. Since Parker has never published nor informed us the actual reason of stopping the project, these noted reasons can only representing our own understanding.
History has once given Hero such a great opportunity, but due to a variety of reasons, this opportunity didn’t last for long even with the approval of our products from Parker after our ceaseless work. Anyway, this project left an important footprint in Hero’s history and was influencing the development of Hero significantly in the coming years.
During the same time the trail production of Parker 45 fountain pen was carrying out, Parker was also conducting a trail production of Parker 45’s ball point variant with Fenghua Ball Points Pen Factory. Since I wasn’t involved, I have nothing to write about that project. It is hereby declared.
[Zhao Songsheng was the honorary chairman of Hero (Group) Company by the time the article was written. ]