I don’t know about you, but I always have difficulties finding a good pen to write. Nowadays, working on the Internet, I mostly write on my computer, but I still use notebooks and I have a stock of old pens to finish before the ink dried up. One of them is a ballpoint pen and, I may be stupid, but how do you conceive a thing like that? I need an answer.
Who invented the Ballpoint pen?
As always, I first ask my old friend Merriam-Webster for a good definition of the subject of the day.
Ballpoint pen: a pen having as the writing point a small rotating metal ball that inks itself by contact with an inner magazine.
Let’s be honest, it’s brilliant. Especially for something created in 1888. Yes, that was long ago. The first patent for a ballpoint pen was issued on 30 October 1888 to John J. Loud.
Loud was a Harvard-educated lawyer from Massachusetts, a leather tanner, and, clearly, an inventor. At the time, he wanted to improve on the reservoir or fountain pen, but not especially for writing on paper. In fact, his invention was thought to be used on surfaces an ordinary pen could not be used—like leather.
For that reason, Loud’s ballpoint pen was never commercialized and the patent eventually lapsed. This was not the ballpoint pen that changes the way we write. The one came later.
A Modern Ballpoint Pen for the Modern Writer
László Bíró, a Hungarian newspaper editor, was like Loud, frustrated by the limitations imposed by fountain pens. They were leaky, needed to be refilled too frequently, and it was a real waste of time to clean up smudged pages.
László Bíró noticed that newspaper printing dried quickly and thought of using it to eliminate a lot of the fountain pens’ problems. He realized immediately that, because of its viscosity, the printing ink could not be used to fill up a traditional fountain pen, it couldn’t flow through the nib.
Bíró asked his brother György, a dentist with a chemistry background, to help him in his endeavor. György worked on getting the texture of the ink right to couple with a ball-socket mechanism, a tiny metal ball at the tip of the pen, which could stop the ink from drying inside the reservoir while allowing controlled flow.
From Bíró to BIC
The Bíró brothers presented their creation at the Budapest International Fair in 1931. Seven years later, they filed for patents in France and Britain. It was just the beginning of their travels as the world was on the road to war. László and György fled the Nazis in 1943, moving to Argentina with their friend Juan Jorge Meyne. In Buenos Aires, they filed for a patent for their “Birome” pen—a portmanteau of the brothers’ surname with Meyne—and opened the Bíró Pens of Argentina factory.
After World War II, ballpoint pens found their way to the United States after the Eversharp Co., a maker of mechanical pencils, teamed up with Eberhard Faber Co. to license the rights of Birome for sales in the United States. American entrepreneur Milton Reynolds discovered the Birome during a trip to Buenos Aires and saw the commercial potential. He found a way to bypass the Birome patent, making enough changes in the design of the pen to obtain his own American patent. He founded the Reynolds International Pen Company and became Eversharp’s main competitor. They won big for a short time, but the market became saturated quickly and people mostly stop buying new pens after a few years.
Those ballpoint pens were made in the same spirit as the fountain pens: they were made of metal and were built to be refilled. They were made to last. Clients just needed to buy ink to refill their pens.
In the 1950s, Paper Mate pens entered the Canadian market with new ink formulas, and Parker Pens introduced the use of tungsten-carbide textured ball-bearings in their pens. Parker thrived and ultimately bought Eversharp in the 1960s.
But the real ballpoint pen revolution came from France where Italian-born French industrialist Michel Bich also ran his own pen company—and bought his patent for the ballpoint pen from László Bíró for $2 million U.S. dollars and developed a stainless-steel ball for the tip of the pen.
Until now, those pens have been thought of as premium products and Bich decided to design a cheap pen instead. The BIC Cristal ballpoint pen became his first product in 1950. After a good advertising campaign, he conquered the American market.
The BIC Cristal is still a bestseller to this day.
If you want to know what you can do with your ballpoint pen, read my article about the Commonplace Book.