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Why Was the Ball Point Pen Invented?

Updated on September 21, 2012

Before the Invention of the Ball Point Pen

Writing instruments have chronicled the transformation of civilizations from pre-historic cultures whose story can be read by archeologists in what physical remains are left in the earth, to literate and increasingly sophisticated cultures that leave records of thoughts, discoveries, achievements in written texts. From petroglyphs, cave drawings and clay tablets marked by stylus to quill pens, fountain pens, crayons and pencils, the story of writing instruments is fascinating. Even in the 21st century, when much of the world's writing takes place on computer, there is something comforting about the feeling and sound of holding a pen in hand and feeling the paper beneath the wrist as the writer's hand moves to voice thoughts on paper.



Early Writing Instruments

Petroglyphs on Newspaper Rock near Canyonlands National Park, south of Moab, southeastern Utah, USA.  Drawn on rock with coloured clay or charcoal, the symbols may be news or prayers in a lost code.
Petroglyphs on Newspaper Rock near Canyonlands National Park, south of Moab, southeastern Utah, USA. Drawn on rock with coloured clay or charcoal, the symbols may be news or prayers in a lost code. | Source
Ebla clay tablet.  Ancient Sumerians used a wedge-shaped, or cuneiform, stylus to make marks in soft clay.  Once dry, the tablet was a permanent record of events or business transactions.
Ebla clay tablet. Ancient Sumerians used a wedge-shaped, or cuneiform, stylus to make marks in soft clay. Once dry, the tablet was a permanent record of events or business transactions. | Source

Inventor of Ball Point Pen

In 1888, John Loud, an American leather tanner, patented a design for a pen he could use to write on leather to help him cut patterns for pieces he needed for his leather products. The fountain pens available then used ink that ran and smeared easily, and the nibs did not write smoothly on the rough surfaces of leather. Loud came up with the idea of using a ball and socket tip with a cartridge of ink behind it. His invention moved smoothly across leather, but was not commercially viable because the ink leaked around the space between the ball and the socket. It would take technical advances in precision machining and in formulating more viscous inks before the ball point pen would really become an effective writing instrument.



Ball Point Pen Tip in Close-Up

The ball point pen has a slender reservoir filled with viscous ink which sticks to the ball in the tip.  As the writer presses against the page, gravity pulls the ink down to leave a mark on the paper.
The ball point pen has a slender reservoir filled with viscous ink which sticks to the ball in the tip. As the writer presses against the page, gravity pulls the ink down to leave a mark on the paper. | Source

Refining the Ball Point Pen

Laszlo Biro, a Hungarian newspaper editor born in Budapest in 1899, was frustrated with the way ballpoint pens available in the 1930s would smudge and blot because the ink flowed freely and took a long time to dry. He noticed that newspaper inks were free of these problems, and collaborating with his brother Gyorgy, a chemist, they came up with a better pen design and a more viscous ink formula, which they presented first at the Budapest International Fair in 1931. With subsequent improvements, they patented their design in 1938.

These first pens used gravity to pull the pen into the tip, and so would only write if they were held nearly vertical. Since this was not always convenient, one of the improvements the Biro brothers developed was a spring-loaded piston in the ink chamber that would press the ink toward the ball, and take advantage of capillary action to coat the rolling ball with ink as it moved freely in the socket and left the trail of quick-drying ink on the page.

During the Nazi regime in war-time Germany, Laszlo and Gyorgi Biro, along with their friend Juan Jorge Meyne, escaped to Argentina. There the three men filed another ball point pen patent and sold the new pens in Argentina under the brand Birome. This brand is still popular in Argentina, where Inventor's Day is celebrated on September 29, Laszlo Biro's birthday. The new patent was adopted by the British, who issued Biro pens to RAF crew, for the new ball point pens worked better in flights at low atmospheric pressure where the traditional fountain pens tended to leak.


Retractable Ball Point Pen Parts

The retractable ball point pen has an interior spring to extend and release the tip.  It can be unscrewed to change the interior cartridge filled with ink.
The retractable ball point pen has an interior spring to extend and release the tip. It can be unscrewed to change the interior cartridge filled with ink. | Source

Ball Point Pen in USA

In 1945, an American businessman, Milton Reynolds, brought a few of the Biro pens back to Chicago from a visit in Argentina. Within 4 months, Milton's company, the Reynolds International Pen company, had copied the product and began selling it at Gimbel's department store in New York City on October 29, 1945. Over ten thousand of the pens, priced at $12.50 each, were sold the first day. Although popular at first, the Reynold's pens also had problems with leaks, and within six years Reynold's company shut down. Shoppers, fed up with ink stains on hands and clothing, voted with their feet, and went back to buying fountain pens.

In 1954, Parker company introduced the Jotter, its first ball point pen. Its technical improvements included a variety of point sizes and larger ink refills, and it worked. In the first year, Parker sold over three million of the new Jotter ball point pens.



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Ball Point Pen Today

In 1950, the French Baron, Marcel Bich, bought Laszlo Biro's patent and began manufacturing ball point pens. He dropped the final h from his name, and sold the pens with the brand BIC. Today the company formed by Marcel Bich, Societe BIC Group, is still listed on the Paris Stock Exchange, and sells 14,000,000 of its pens every day world-wide.

Cheap, effective and disposable, BIC pens are the most popular ball point pens today, but some writers prefer an instrument that will be theirs for a lifetime. They might choose a pen by Parker, Sheaffer and Waterman, which dominate the upscale markets of fountain pens and expensive ballpoints.

Take the poll and tell us which pen you write with.


Comments

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    • mgt28 profile image

      mgt28 

      5 years ago

      Thank you Janis. This is a well researched essay.

    • Janis Goad profile imageAUTHOR

      Janis Goad 

      6 years ago

      Thank you for the read and comment, Karen. Sometimes the most obvious items we use daily reveal very queer or unusual beginnings when we look into it. I love finding out who had that really great idea.

    • KarenCreftor profile image

      Karen Creftor 

      6 years ago from Kent, UK

      I love this! I always use ball point pens for marking fabrics and can totally see why they were first invented for leather :D

      Really interesting read, thank you Janis. I love the idea of 'Inventor's day' too~ we need much more recognition for creative achievements!

      Voted up, interesting and shared :)

      ~Kaz x

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