Early History of the Sharpie Marker

When Charlie Lofgren became president of Sanford Ink Company, the company was known mostly for its Penit Fountain Pen Ink. When I joined the company in 1965 this was still a product for them along with a number of other school and office products that had been made by the company for many years. They sold Tempera Paints, a water based line of artist colors that was used in school art classes. They also supplied what was known as school paste. This was a composition of starch and water cooked to form a paste that was used in school art projects. Office products included rubber cement and mucilage. Both of these products were available in two forms. The original mucilage, sold as Royal Crown Mucilage, was made from Gum Arabic. The original rubber cement was made from natural rubber. Francis Gilbert, Sanford’s Executive Vice President, told me that during World War II both of these commodities were unavailable so he had developed a rubber cement using synthetic polymers, and a mucilage using dextrin that could be bought during the war. Since both of these substitute products had unique properties compared to the original products that some customers found useful, both were kept in the product line after natural rubber and Gum Arabic became available again after the war.


By 1964 Sanford was having considerable success with their felt tip marker. Charlie had quickly recognized the potential of a clever new marking product that was called the Magic Marker. This crudely packaged product was the original felt tip marker. It featured an absorbent material known as the reservoir saturated with a solvent based ink that was formulated to write on most surfaces. A wool felt tip contacted the reservoir and therefore itself became saturated with the ink. When striking a surface like wood, glass, corrugated, etc. the ink flowed by capaliary action from the reservoir through the tip and onto the surface being marked. Charlie took one look at this product and put Francis Gilbert to work developing a similar product for Sanford. Rather than crude, cheap packaging, however, Charlie wanted a rugged aluminum shell for his marker.


Sanford’s felt tip markers came in three sizes, and they were an immediate success.   But they had competition. A number of Sanford competitors also developed quality felt tip markers. But while the competition seemed content to compete for the standard felt tip marker market, Charlie had the idea that there was a different market for a marker that was shaped like and the size of a traditional fountain pen. This new product he called the Sharpie. It functioned technically like the felt tip markers, i.e., it had a reservoir and dispensed ink by capillary action through a tip. To protect this product from competition, he filed or and received a patent for his idea.  


The Sharpie tip, however, needed to be made of something more rigid that wool felt, so Francis Gilbert located a company that molded a tip for the Sharpie made of a rugged plastic foam.   Charlie was not completely happy with the plastic foam tip, but he was eager to get his product on the market.  There is an advantage to being first, and he wanted that advantage. So in 1964 the Sharpie was introduced with the same ink as the felt tip marker ink and with a plastic form tip while product improvement of the product continued. I was graduating for the University of Iowa at that time.


While the Sharpie was an immediate success, Charlie recognized that the product needed improvement if it were to hold its place in the market. He hired a veteran Chemist named Keith Beal to develop a proprietary tip for the Sharpie that would be made bySanford. He felt that a custom made tip that would out perform anything the competition could buy was the way to capture and keep the market. Keith took the development job but he disagreed with Charlie about the necessity of a better tip for the Sharpie. All felt tip markers on the market used a similar solvent based ink. Chemically the solvents are what are known as aromatic solvents, or in commercial terms, oil based solvents. The odor was objectionable. The dyes for oil based solvents were weak. With these solvents it was too difficult to adjust important properties like evaporation rates of the ink. He therefore convinced Charlie to let him hire an assistant. And along with assisting him in his development of a new tip, Keith wanted to put his assistant to work developing superior inks as a secondary assignment.   So in 1965 Keith Beal went to the Chicago employment clearing office maintained by the American Chemical Society looking for a bright, young chemist who was looking for work in the Chicago area.


Keith was a native of New Sharon, Iowa. This is a small farm town in the southeast part of the state. When he saw a resume from a young chemist named Bill Green who was from a farm town near to New Sharon he decided to interview the young man.  So he sent me an invitation to interview for the position of formulation chemist. I came to Chicago with three interviews lined up. One canceled out before I made it to the interview. A second interview was with a petroleum company who gave me a job offer, but their terms were a cut in basic salary with the chance to make up the difference in overtime. I considered myself a professional chemist and was, frankly, offended that they would treat my position in that way. So I went to my third interview a bit discouraged. The oil company would have been a job with a prestigious company. This was the job I was counting on. I couldn’t see how working for a company who made school and office products offered much of a career for a professional chemist. But I was eager to relocate my young family to the Chicago area, so with nothing else going for me at the time, I took the interview.


After the interview I returned to Cleveland where I was working for the Harshaw Chemical Company as an Analytical Chemist. I soon received an offer from Sanford with a slight raise in pay, and since it was the only good offer I had, I accepted it. Shortly after accepting the Sanford offer I received an offer from General Electric. They were developing a color television tube and needed an analytical chemist who was capable of developing new analytical procedures.  In my interview with them I had impressed them as someone with the ability to work in uncharted territory. The job was not only in Cleveland, but within walking distance of the apartment where we were already living. It was a great offer and a great opportunity. But my first objective was to relocate my young family where my children would grow up knowing their extended family. To me, this was my highest priority, so I turned down General Electric and honored the commitment I had made toSanford.   By all sound logic I had made a poor choice. And now that I am at the end of my career, I still have to wonder what I missed professionally by making that decision.


From my first day on the job at Sanford it was made clear to me that the President of the company, Charlie Lofgren, considered the Sharpie to be the future of the company. My training began by Keith walking me over to the production line where Sharpies were being made. A team of about 4 assemblers sat at a table. The first assembler manually inserted a plastic fiber bundle that was nothing more than an overgrown cigarette filter into the molded plastic housing. These parts are known as the barrel and the reservoir. The barrel was, and still is, grey in color. Another smaller plastic piece known as the ferrule was then manually placed on the barrel and this assembly was handed to the second assembler. The ferrule was colored to match the color of the ink being used.  This assembler set the assemblies into a fixture know as the spin welder. Upon activation of a switch a rotating head came down and spun the ferrule at high speed while holding the barrel stationary in a clamping device. The friction of the spinning ferrule against the stationary barrel created enough heat to very quickly melt the plastic parts together. The product then passed to the third assembler who positioned the assembly in another holding device and activated a foot peddle. This dropped an automatic syringe down and 2.5 CC of ink were injected into the marker. A forth assembler received the marker, placed the tip into the ferrule and placed the assembly into yet another holder. Another foot peddle was then used to drop a jig down that pressed the tip to just the right height. This final assembler then put on the cap which also matched the color of the ink, and placed the finished marker into a partitioned carton. There was room for 12 rows of 12 markers in each carton. A finished carton was one gross of Sharpies.  


The spin welder, the automatic syringe and the tip setting device, known as the staker, each handled two markers at a time,   This production line of four workers could with this process produce about 4000 markers in an 8 hour shift. One of the first assignments that Keith Beal gave me was to prepare lab samples of Sharpies that had the ferrules attached to the barrels with an adhesive in place of being spin welded. Since the barrels and ferrules were molded with nylon, I completed my assignment using liquid phenol to make a solid bond between the plastic parts. I reported, however, that this would require very precise placement of just the right amount of adhesive to make a good, clean bond. And at best this was a process much slower than spin welding. If Sanford wanted to increase production on their Sharpie line, this wasn’t the way to do it.


The next thing that Keith Beal did after I joined the company was to hand me a set of dye samples from Ciba Geigy. “These are spirit soluble dyes”, he told me. “See if you can make a Sharpie ink using these dyes and using spirit type solvents. I am convinced that spirit solvents will make a better Sharpie Ink”.   And with that I sent to work. The assignment was not a formal one. It was a “see what you can do” assignment with no schedule. But even if there had been a schedule, it would have been meaningless because not long after that Charlie decided that his company did not have the resources to make its own proprietary Sharpie tip. Keith Beal’s progress on that project was going nowhere, and rather than to pour more money into that development project, the project was canceled and Keith Beal was let go. This left me with some unfinished spirit soluble Sharpie formulations, and no reason to continue their development.  


For the next year or two I played with Sharpie formulations while learning the chemistry of Sanford’s other products. And then after a set of circumstances developed that will be described in the stories included,   The original Sharpie was replaced with a product that looked exactly the same, but was made with entirely different materials. That was my Sharpie.  In a project lasting no longer than a few short weeks I used everything I had learned about felt tip markers and their chemistry to replace the original Sharpie with a new one. And the product has been manufactured ever since much as I designed it, making only those changes that come about as old materials are discontinued and new ones are developed. In the year 2014 the Sharpie was 50 years old. The Sharpie as I redeveloped it will by only a few years younger than that.