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The Debut of the First Modern Ballpoint Pen

Updated on June 7, 2015
The modern pen in 1943.
The modern pen in 1943.
The cheap Bic pen circa 1959.
The cheap Bic pen circa 1959.

Everyone has used and still uses one today. It is an amazing device because it is so simple. No battery, runs for a long time, no signal needed in the high tech world, easily carried and if it does fail, very cheap to replace.

The other amazing thing is that the ballpoint pen is recent, epic, event in mankind's history. It allowed for an amazing way to write and it debuted in the USA in 1945. Yes, you read it correctly-1945. When John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison (aka The Beatles) were born, it did not exist. But to be clear, the first crude ballpoint pen was created in 1888, but it could not be used for letter writing, it clogged, jammed, flowed unevenly. The technology and interest waned and over the years prior to 1940, the technology and ink viscosity simply was not available to make what we use now, the modern ballpoint pen. I know, it is so hard to believe. It is such a taken for granted utensil. One thinks it has always been around.

It was on October 29th, 1945, the first modern ballpoint pen sold to the public near Gimbels department store. It cost $12.50 each- a lot of money then when hourly wages were just 50 cents to $1. In today's money, it would $160! The general public swarmed to buy the high tech device that made writing far easier and news called it, "a fantastic, atomic-era, miracle pen". The first day was like when the Apple iPhone debuted and in today's money, nearly $1.3 million were made that one day!

Its inventor was Hungarian who had come to America, Lazlo Biri, a man who tried to find his way through a variety of life careers and only partly successful. It was when he was working in a printing press room using a fountain pen. As he watched the the machine cylinders apply ink to paper, the idea of the pen came. The print cylinders could only move forward or backward, Biri's idea was the ball had to print in all directions. Then, one day, he sat in a cafe watching kids play with marbles as they shot them across the puddle. The marble went through the water and left a trail of water. That was the inspiration. His first prototypes used a minute ball bearing that as it rolled, ink was drawn from the pen. The ballpoint and special ink was perfected in 1938. But, then, he was living in Budapest and with war on the horizon, he fled to Argentina. By 1943, the Biro pen, as it was known, was sold there. The British then licensed the device and made some for pilots only because the pen worked fine in higher altitudes and the fountain pen did not. An American, Milton Reynolds, while visiting Argentina, came across the pen and thought the device was so amazing. Fountain pens required one to refill the ink too frequently and was so messy. So, he obtained a license to make the pen in the USA by 1945. But, Reynolds cut corners and altered the Biro pen. The net result was that it faulty, blotched ink, leaked. Consumers were angry and 104,000 pens had to be replaced in the first eight months of being sold. In the few years after 1945, the US ballpoint pen industry died because of the bad design alterations.

The US pen industry was saved by the first Paper Mate pen in 1949, which actually improved the Biro design using fast drying ink and was retractable with a click. So, the pen even then, remained expensive and it was not until 1959, a Frenchman, Marcel Bich, had the idea of the cheap pen while living here. The body was clear, hexagonal in shape. Yes, we know it today as the "Bic" pen. It cost only 19 cents then (about $1.50 today).

Since then, over 100 billion have been sold and half of all pens sold in the world are Bic in 160 countries. The company makes $2 billion yearly from the simple pen.

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