History of the ballpoint pen

Not many people realize it, but June 10 is National Ballpoint Pen Day in the US. Not only that, but 2018 celebrates the 75th birth date of the ballpoint pen! Most people today can’t remember when ballpoints weren’t available.

Although a quarter of a century old, the ballpoint is a youngster in the history of permanent writing tools. Our earliest ancestors quite literally carved important documents into stone with chisels and hammers. At some, unknown point writers turned to quill pens, made from feathers of large birds. They dipped the nib into a separate well of ink. Some of the earliest of these kinds of documents date from the second century BC, with continued use for thousands of years until the 19th century. Finally, in 1827,  Petrache Poenarre, a Romanian, invented a pen with its own internal ink supply and the fountain pen was born.

Although a vast improvement over quill and ink, fountain pens had their own problems. They scratched, broke, leaked, splotched, smeared and ran dry and the most inconvenient times. Desperate writers looked for something better.

In the 1930s, a Hungarian newspaper editor named Lazlo Biro looked for a way to improve on the fountain pen. He decided to substitute a ball bearing for the breakable nib and use newspaper ink that dried fast and resisted fading. Newsprint ink, however, proved to be too thick and heavy to flow properly. He turned to his brother, Henry, who was a chemist. Together, they developed a pen that rolled smoothly and ink that dried instantly. By 1938, their company was producing pens for moderate sales.

As Jews, the Biro brothers could see their time and opportunities in Europe were limited. While searching for an outlet for their future, they went to England. While there they met a wealthy Argentinian who encouraged them to relocate to that country and build a factory for their pen production there. It turned out the man was Augustine Justo, the President of Argentina! The brothers promptly sold their business in Hungary for just enough money to escape Europe with their families and move to South America. In his new home country of Argentina, on June 10, 1943, Lazlo Biro filed a patent for his pen and consequently became recognized as the inventor of the ballpoint. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007

The Biros got the recognition, but never the full benefit from their invention. A large mechanical pencil company called Eversharp bought the patent rights in 1945 for about a half a million dollars, thinking they would have exclusive rights for North and Central America.  Another American, Martin Reynolds, copied the pen design and got it into production ahead of Eversharp. On October 19, 1945, thousands of eager buyers lined up at Gimbel Brothers in Manhattan to buy the first modern, ballpoint pen. They paid a whopping $12.50 for each pen–about $150 in today’s value! Gimbel’s sold more than 30,000 pens that week, and Reynolds made over 5 ½ million in six months.

Eversharpe immediately sued Reynolds over legal rights–a fight joined by other companies and went on for years. The legalities proved sticky, however. In reality, over 300 previous had been filed for ballpoint pen inventions. All had failed. The first of these patents was filed by John Loud of Weymouth, MA. on October 30, 1888. Loud was a Harvard graduate, man-of-all-trades. In addition to an inventor, he worked as a banker, musician, lawyer and historian. He wanted a pen that would work on rough surfaces, such as leather, so he designed a ball bearing at the pen tip and an internal ink reservoir. This rolling ball could move in different directions and would not bend or break on leather. The ball worked, but the ink proved too thick, and the whole design was too coarse for paper. The invention proved unmarketable, and Loud let the patent lapse. His problems proved similar to the rest of the failed patents. Many of the failures involved getting the ink right, but there was also a lack of understanding about pistons, springs, capillary action and gravity, which affected ink flow.

The Biro’s initial design also contained some of the problems identified above and needed several improvements, especially in the gravitation of the ink to the ball. With falling sales, they were almost at the point of business failure. Their revisions proved successful though, and they created a pen that didn’t leak in flight. This advance attracted the attention of Britain military, still in the throes of WWII, who needed such a tool for their mapmakers. They ordered the first bulk supply of the pens and put the Biro Brothers back in business.

In the following years, ballpoint pen manufacturers continue to refine the pen design. Patrick Frawley for instance, added a retractable point in the 1950s and still sells the pen known as the “Papermate”. One of the newest pens is the Fisher AG7 Space Pen that works in freezing as well as desert-hot temperatures, underwater, and upside-down. NASA uses this pen.

Today ballpoint pen prices vary from less than a dollar for a disposable to over $400 for a refillable. So who would pay hundreds of dollars just for a pen? For some, it’s a matter of image. For others it’s dependability. The old saying, “You get what you pay for.” is true to some extent. More expensive pens are make of higher quality material, such as titanium or gold and often vary in weight and balance. Many are hand-made or machine made in small quantities and may be molded to fit the owner’s hand. The designs are more elegant and may include precious gems. Artists may want the smoother writing and the ability to vary ink strokes. Altogether it’s a matter of budget, taste, and purpose.

All pens write, from a Bic to a Montblanc. All cars provide transportation from a Ford to a Ferrari. The question is, what best fits your needs and desires? As far as writing goes, be assured there is a ballpoint pen just right for you.

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