Pilot began life in 1918, set up by Namiki Ryosuke, a mechanical engineer and an instructor at the Tokyo Merchant Marine College. The company’s website (or rather, the UK site) suggests that this was a time that Japan was opening up to influences from the west, but that is a little disingenuous. Japan had been opening up to outside influences for about fifty years at that point (as one might learn from a film which should have starred an Englishman opposite Watanabe Ken), and had marked its coming up to speed by kicking the stuffing out of Russia in a war regarding who had the better right to push China around; the war was so successfully concluded that the primary Japanese commander had a Canadian town named after him. By 1918, Japan was a reasonably bustling industrial nation, and Namiki’s company was just one of many that appeared in Japan about the same time.
The original name of the company was the Namiki Manufacturing Company. This changed in 1938 to Pilot, apparently in reference to Namiki’s connections with the sea; a pilot, in nautical terms, is someone very well acquainted with the local shoals and tides, who is thus able to safely take a ship into or out of a harbour. Company history is a little thin upon the ground, but there was another name change in 1950 to Pilot Ink, and thereafter various sub-brands and side-companies have developed. At the moment, there are two aspects of the Pilot Corporation, as the overall holding company now calls itself, which interest us pen-fanciers. Pilot Pens makes the lower end and mid-range pens, while the upper and luxury ranges are handled by Namiki. Just to confuse the issue, there is some overlap between the two; for example, both take credit for the Vanishing Point. Update: It was announced in 2014 that the Namiki name is henceforth to be restricted to the really expensive end of the company’s production; maki-e pens will be Namiki, anything of a more pedestrian trim (like sterling silver) will be Pilot.
Pilot pens, at least in the upper ranges, often have a date code on their points, composed of a letter and three or four digits. The letters are T for Tokyo factory, H for Hirastuka, or A and B which are also for the Hirastuka facility which in later production runs two lines. The digits indicate month and year, so T1175 would be made in Tokyo in November of 1975, while B503 would come from Hiratsuka in May 2003. These codes are small, and depending on the model may be concealed by bodywork. On pens made between 1960 and roughly 1980, there is usually another form of date code on the body, in which the year is indicated by a letter starting at A for 1960, the month and factory by a second letter, with A to L for the Hiratsuka plant and M to X for Tokyo, and the very day of manufacture by a pair of digits. Thus, the pen with the point T1175 could also have on the barrel PW30. This body code appears to have been dropped before it ran to its theoretical limit in 1985, which is a shame because it makes it impossible to plan a birthday party for a newer pen for want of specific data.
Models I’ve examined: