Tech Hidden in Plain Sight: the Ballpoint Pen

Would you pay $180 for a new type of writing instrument? Image via The New York Times

On a crisp fall morning in late October 1945, approximately 5,000 shoppers rushed the 32nd street Gimbel’s department store in New York City like it was Black Friday at Walmart. Things got so out of hand that fifty additional NYPD officers were dispatched to the scene. Everyone was clamoring for the hottest new technology – the ballpoint pen.

This new pen cost $12.50, which is about $180 today. For many people, the improved experience that the ballpoint promised over the fountain pen was well worth the price. You might laugh, but if you’ve ever used a fountain pen, you can understand the need for something more rugged and portable.

Ballpoint pens are everywhere these days, especially cheap ones. They’re so ubiquitous that we don’t have to carry one around or really think about them at all. Unless you’re into pens, you’ve probably never marveled at the sheer abundance of long-lasting, affordable, permanent writing instruments that are around today. Before the ballpoint, pens were a messy nuisance.

A Revolutionary Pen

A ballpoint, up close and personal. Image via Wikipedia

Fountain pens use gravity and capillary action to evenly feed ink from a cartridge or reservoir down into the metal nib. The nib is split in two tines and allows ink to flow forth when pressed against paper. It’s not that fountain pens are that delicate. It’s just that they’re only about one step above dipping a nib or a feather directly into ink.

There’s no denying that fountain pens are classy, but you’re playing with fire if you put one in your pocket. They can be a bit messy on a good day, and the cheap ones are prone to leaking ink. No matter how nice of a fountain pen you have, it has to be refilled fairly frequently, either by drawing ink up from a bottle into the pen’s bladder or inserting a new cartridge. And you’re better off using it as often as possible, since a dormant fountain pen will get clogged with dried ink.

Early ballpoint pens were modeled after fountain pens, aesthetically speaking. They had metal bodies and refillable reservoirs that only needed a top-up every couple of years, compared to once a week or so for fountain pens. Instead of a nib, ballpoints have a tiny ball bearing made of steel, brass, or tungsten carbide. These pens rely on gravity to bathe the ball in ink, which allows it to glide around in the socket like a tiny roll-on deodorant.

Bíró’s US Patent for the ballpoint. Image via US Patent #2390636

Biro’s Biros

Although Milton Reynolds beat everyone else to market in the States, his was not the first ballpoint pen ever. That honor belongs to a lawyer named John Loud, who patented a rolling ball pen in 1888. Loud wanted a pen that would write on anything from wood to leather. His revolving steel ball design was just the ticket. The only problem was that it was too rough for paper.

Many inventors tried to improve on Loud’s design over the next few decades, but nobody could get the ink right. That was until Lázló Bíró, a Hungarian journalist, decided to try creating an ink that dried much faster, like newspaper ink. He got his brother György involved, and he developed a more viscous ink.

Bíró patented the pen in Britain in 1938, but World War Two forced the Jewish brothers to flee to Argentina in 1941. With the help of a fellow escapee named Juan Jorge Meyne, they relaunched the pen in 1943 from their new home country, where it was known as the birome, derived from the two last names. In many European countries, biro is still used today as a catchall term for ballpoint pens.

In 1945, two US companies teamed up and bought the rights to sell the pens in North and Central America, but they were too slow. American businessman Milton Reynolds had seen the birome on a business trip to Buenos Aires and bought several of them. He changed Lázló Bíró’s design enough to avoid patent infringement and made it to market before Eberhard Faber and Eversharp could get pens in consumers’ hands.

The bestselling pen in the world. Image via Wikipedia

Life in Plastic, It’s Fantastic

Lázló Bíró may have invented the first practical ballpoint pen, but it was Marcel Bich who turned the ballpoint into the dime a dozen commodity it is today. In the mid-1940s, he bought an old factory near Paris and started cranking out pens under his new company, Societe Bic. Bich’s BiCs cost a fraction of other ballpoint pens. By adding disposability, Bich turned the ballpoint pen from a premium product to an everyman essential.

The BiC Cristal was first introduced in 1950. It sold its 100 billionth unit in 2006, making it the bestselling pen in the world. Little has changed about the design, which features a hexagonal body like a pencil, and a tiny hole to equalize pressure inside the pen so it won’t leak. At this point, you might be wondering how the Fisher space pen can write without gravity. The answer is in the special pressurized cartridge that allows it to write anywhere from any angle, even underwater.

The next big advancement in pens was making them retractable. There are many different retractable pen designs these days, ranging from simple to complex. In this excellent video, [engineerguy] explains the inner workings of a 1954 Parker Jotter, one of the first retractable ballpoint pens. It’s an eight-step process that involves a plunger, a cam body, and a pair of stop members that are fixed in place as part of the barrel.

I love pens, and I have a fairly sizable collection of them. It’s amusing to me that we’ve come full circle and have disposable fountain pens now, especially since they’re some of my favorites to write with.

Next time you use a pen, think about how portable they are now. Odds are good that it won’t leak, skip, or even run out of ink before you lose it.

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