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Evolution of the Ballpoint Pen

Updated on September 16, 2012

Modern man takes many common everyday items for granted, never wondering how they came to be. For instance, millions pick up a pen daily, but few stop to recognize the obstacles that had to be overcome to produce the final product they’re holding.

The first pen type writing and drawing instruments were quill pens. They were used by draftsmen and artists, especially during medieval times, to create beautiful calligraphy and manuscripts. It’s still used today by many calligraphers and artists because it provides more flexibility than standard steel pens.The most common feathers used for quill pens come from Geese. Swan feathers are considered deluxe. However feathers from the crow, eagle, owl, hawk and turkey are also used. Most historians agree quill pens were being widely used in Western Europe by the end of the sixth century for writing church documents on parchment.

Although the quill pen had its strong points it also had drawbacks. As societies became more literate it became apparent a better instrument had to be devised. After all, a quill pen and a bottle of ink is not something easily carried around in ones’ pocket.

It was in 1879 Alonzo T. Cross of Providence, Rhode Island, invented the stylographic fountain pen, a precursor to the ballpoint pen. But, there were still problems. Although others were busy designing pens, they all had one thing in common. The ink leaked, smeared and had a tendency to dry out.

The first to actually develop a ball-point pen addressing these problems was Hungarian László Jozsef Bíró, (1899-1985) who introduced a ballpoint pen using a pressurized ink cartridge in 1938. He is generally credited with inventing today's ballpoint pen. Bíró was a journalist and worked around newspaper printing presses. He noticed ink used in newspaper printing was quick drying and didn’t leave smudges. He reasoned the same type of ink might eliminate some of the problems found in writing instruments.

But there was a problem…the thicker ink wouldn’t flow from regular pen nibs. He overcame this by fitting a tiny ball bearing in its tip. The ball bearing rotated, picked up ink from the cartridge and left it on the paper. That effectively solved the ink drying dilemma, but not the leaking, at least at ground level. It worked fine at high altitudes. In 1943 Bíró became Argentina’s leading producer of ball-point pens. The British government bought his patent for use by aviation navigators and in 1944 the Biro pen was produced for the Royal Air Force.

Shortly afterwards in 1945, the Eversharp and Eberhard-Faber company acquired exclusive rights to Biro Pens and renamed their company Eversharp CA. The CA stood for Capillary Action.
Chicago businessman Milton Reynolds was quick to recognize the Biro's potential for sales in the United States and with assistance from other collaborators created the Reynolds Ballpoint Pen in 1945, even though Eversharp still owned the patent.

But, like the others they were not perfect and still plagued with the leaking and smearing situation. Apparently this was a serious annoyance for consumers, since by 1951 the fountain pen had dramatically outdistanced the ballpoint in sales.

However, innovators didn’t give up. In 1954, Parker Pens launched their first ballpoint pen called The Jotter. It was a huge success. Newer, better ink formulas continued to be made and around 1950, using better ink, J. Frawley Jr. put an improved ballpoint pen on the market, the first with a retractable ballpoint tip and no-smear ink. It became known as the Papermate.

The ballpoint pen was revolutionizing the way people wrote, but other problems cropped up. With dozens of different companies producing them there were just as many various ink cartridges. It was Paul C. Fisher who came up with the idea for a "Universal Refill" that worked in most pen models. It became popular with users and store owners alike since they no longer had to carry a large assortment of refills.

Fisher continued making improvements to his cartridge and in 1966 finally solved the leaky pen problem by using thixotropic ink. It worked because the ink remained semisolid until rolling ballpoint action liquefied it. Thus, ink would only flow only when needed. The cartridge was also charged with nitrogen therefore it didn’t have to rely on gravity to make it work.

This solution came with other benefits. It wrote in freezing cold, desert heat, underwater and upside down. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. The space race was on and astronauts had been using pencils in space since standard ballpoints didn’t work in zero gravity. The Fisher cartridge did. Now mankind had the perfect ballpoint pen, right? Not quite.

In 1985, Boyd Willat thought it could be better and began working on a more user friendly, ergonomic writing instrument. After ten years of research, he introduced Sensa, what many have called The World's Most Comfortable Pen. It was awarded the Winner of Design Excellence by Industrial Designers Society of America. Willat found the exact weight and balance for a pen making it more comfortable to use and eliminating stress caused by periods of long writing. The new design had an ergonomically designed gel grip using a plasmium fluid that molded to a writer’s fingers.

Unfortunately, the manufacturer has discontinued the Sensa series, but it can still be found online. Who would have thought it could take a decade to design a pen? Now, there’s something to write home about!


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    • Landam Naresh profile image

      Landam Naresh 3 years ago from Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh

      Do you know that in his book “A History of Writing” Steven Roger Fischer suggests that the reed pen might well have been used for writing on parchment as long ago as the First Dynasty or about 3000 BC. Quills slowly replaced reed pens from about 7th century. A quill is a pen made from a flight feather of a large bird, most often a goose. Quill pens were used in medieval times to write on parchment or paper. I found this info in here,

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 5 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      aviannovice, good, now write it down. LOL

      Eiddwen, thanks for your comment.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 5 years ago from Wales

      Such an interesting and well informed hub; I have learnt so much and thanks for sharing.

      Enjoy your day.


    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Very good and interesting piece, John. I enjoyed it, and now know everything about the pen's history.

    • snakeslane profile image

      Verlie Burroughs 5 years ago from Canada

      Hi JY, You're welcome :) . I've noticed that a lot of really good Hubs get very few comments, I have no idea why that is.

    • JY3502 profile image

      John Young 5 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Finally, someone who recognizes talent! LOL. Thank you for your comments.

    • snakeslane profile image

      Verlie Burroughs 5 years ago from Canada

      JY, thank you for this interesting and informative history of the ball point pen. Your page design and illustrations look great. Regards, snakeslane