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A History of the Ballpoint Pen

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Gimbels department store in New York placed a huge order for ballpoint pens in October 1945, thereby bringing the innovation to the world’s attention. It was the culmination of decades of research.

The John Loud Pen

John J. Loud worked as a lawyer at a bank in Weymouth, Massachusetts. (Some accounts say Loud was a leather tanner, which seems a far remove from the law books he studied at Harvard).

On the side, he tinkered as an inventor. One of his endeavours was aimed at finding a writing instrument that could be used on rough surfaces; leaky fountain pens didn’t do the job.

On October 30, 1888, he filed a patent that he said “consists of an improved reservoir or fountain pen, especially useful, among other purposes, for marking on rough surfaces-such as wood, coarse wrapping-paper, and other articles where an ordinary pen could not be used.”

John J. Loud in about 1866.

John J. Loud in about 1866.

Loud’s pen had a rotating steel ball where an ordinary pen’s nib would be. The ball picked up ink from a reservoir and left it on the surface. However, the invention proved too coarse for use on ordinary writing paper and never went into production.

Loud didn’t renew his patent and the development of the ballpoint pen went dormant for half a century.

John Loud’s patented design.

John Loud’s patented design.

The Biro Is Born

It’s time to meet László Bíró. In the 1930s, he was a journalist working in Budapest, Hungary. Gemma Curtin is a curator at London’s Design Museum. She is quoted by the BBC as saying that Bíró “was used to the fountain pen which was very leaky and left ink on your hands and smudged and he was very frustrated by it.”

He noticed that printer’s ink dried quicker than fountain pen ink. Obviously a man with an inquiring mind, he tried printer’s ink in his fountain pen, but it was too thick to flow through the nib. He called in his brother Győrgy, who was a bit of a whiz at chemistry. Together, the pair developed an ink that flowed easily and dried quickly.

He recreated Loud’s plan, although it’s not clear if Bíró copied the idea or came up with it independently. The National Inventors Hall of Fame explained that Bíró’s invention “consisted of a ball that freely rotated in a socket. Moving the pen across the page made the ball rotate, where it picked up ink from a reservoir and applied it to the page.”

In Britain, Italy, and Australia the universal word for a ballpoint pen is “biro,” pronounced as if was spelled by-row.

The Ballpoint Pen Takes off

László Bíró was granted a patent in England for his device in 1938, but then Hitler’s maniacal drive for world domination put an end to production and marketing. Being Jews, the brothers Bíró fled Europe and found sanctuary in Argentina.

In 1943, the first “Birome,” as it was called, appeared in Argentina. The Royal Air Force ordered 30,000 pens to replace fountain pens that leaked at altitude because of changes in air pressure.

László Bíró in about 1978.

László Bíró in about 1978.

Word spread about the utility of the new pen and a couple of U.S. companies paid the equivalent of more than seven million dollars for the rights to make and sell Bíró’s invention in North America. But, Eversharp and Eberhard Faber were out-maneuvered by businessman Milton Reynolds.

In a time-honoured strategy of capitalists everywhere, Reynolds tweaked the design of the Bíró pen just enough to get around the patent restrictions. He got his pen to market faster than his competitors and sewed up an exclusive contract with Manhattan’s Gimbels department store.

Reynolds called his “invention” the Reynolds Rocket. The advertising featured a young woman flying astride the phallic-looking Rocket, skirt billowing and stocking tops in full view. The copy said “Got a Rocket in Your Pocket?” Subtlety does not seem to have been Reynolds’s strong suit.

The first order was for 50,000 ballpoint pens and, by the end of the first week, 30,000 of them had sold. Time Magazine reported that “thousands of people all but trampled one another last week to spend $12.50 each for a new fountain pen.”

Stephen Dowling at the BBC got his calculator out and wrote that “convert that to 2020 money and it’s more than $180 (£138.50). Today, if you were buying your pens in bulk, from stack-‘em-high superstores, you could end up with more than 1,000 for the same price.”

With modesty, Gimbels described the ballpoint as a “fantastic, atomic era, miraculous pen.”

Manufacturer Reynolds claimed “It writes under water.”

The Ballpoint Pen Wars

As soon as business people realized a hot, new item was on the market they set up factories to make ballpoint pens. The competition was fierce.

The first pens were metal and were designed to be re-filled with new ink cartridges. That meant people were buying refills but not new pens. In France, industrialist Michel Bich solved that problem. He bought a disused factory in Paris and established his company Société Bic.

He churned out cheap, plastic ballpoint pens that were designed to be thrown away after they ran out of ink. The Bic Cristal hit the market in December 1950 and was a smash hit. Its near-perfect design has scarcely changed over the decades and, after the 100 billionth example was sold in 2006, the Guinness Book of World Records declared it the best-selling pen of all time.

Meanwhile, in the United States, companies such as Reynolds, Parker, Eversharp, and others were beating each other up in the court system over patent infringement suits.

Postscript

And, what of the genius who revolutionized the way we write? In 2012, György Moldova published his book Ballpoint. In it he pointed out that “the inventor who conducted the thousands of experiments needed to perfect the ballpoint pen ended up without a penny of stock in the factory where they had taken place.”

László Bíró died in Buenos Aires, in 1985 at the age of 86.

Bonus Factoids

  • Boys in short trousers in England in the 1950s in my school were forbidden to use ballpoint pens. The pens required additional pressure on paper when compared with fountain pens and this was deemed to wreck proper cursive writing.
  • The average Bic pen will draw a line two kilometres long before running out of ink.
  • Disposable ballpoint pens usually end up in a landfill somewhere; an estimated 1.6 billion a year of them in the United States alone. To reduce the waste, the Bic company’s pens now are made from 74 percent recycled plastic. Some manufacturers have started using biodegradable cardboard for pen barrels.

Sources

  • “Laszlo Josef Biro.” National Inventors Hall of Fame, undated.
  • “Why the Invention of the Ballpoint Pen Was Such a Big Deal.” Lily Rothman, Time Magazine, October 29, 2015.
  • “The Cheap Pen that Changed Writing Forever.” Stephen Dowling, BBC, October 29, 2020.
  • “The Story of László Bíró, the Man Who Invented the Ballpoint Pen.” Colin Schultz, Smithsonian Magazine, August 22, 2012.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

greg cain from Moscow, Idaho, USA on January 03, 2021:

This is a great article, Rupert. You really did your homework, first of all, but then it’s also very well written and so readable. It’s hard to fathom all that waste created by disposable ink pens. Fascinating history, too. Seems the story ends like so many do...the person who came up with the idea gets a par on the head and a thanks, maybe also a footnote in the history books.

BRENDA ARLEDGE from Washington Court House on January 03, 2021:

Interesting topic to read about.

Too bad Loud didn't keep pressing and renew his patent, but great that Biro did finally succeeded.

Sad that he too didnt get rich while all these companies make such a bundle off his original idea.

We definitely use pens all the time.

Thanks for sharing.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on January 03, 2021:

Hello Roberts, thanks for the interesting read. I still cherished the ballpoint pen and preserve my copies along with the fountain pen. The Bic and Biro though good are quite common in every day use. At unusual times, I would pick a strong and good feather from a big bird, sharpen it into a pen. I write with that by dipping in ink or Quink. When I was in primary 3, we all wrote with a steel pen like the Arabic traditional writing tool. Thanks for sharing, and happy new 2021!

DW Davis from Eastern NC on January 02, 2021:

I never realized the initial invention of the ballpoint pen dated so far back into the past. Thanks for the lesson.

By the way, have you ever read the book FRINDLE by Andrew Clements. The main character in the story is a pen.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on January 02, 2021:

A very interesting article, Rupert. I am sorry to hear the Lazlo Biro did not become rich out of it all, after all we still use his name when referring to the disposable pen even more so than “Bic. We always say, “Can you get me a pen or a biro.”

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on January 02, 2021:

Thanks everybody and Happy New Year. Thanks Peggy for the bad video link alert. I've fixed it with another that does work.

Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on January 02, 2021:

Very interesting history of an item which is so common now, that we take it for granted. I had a Hungarian art history professor named Biro. I never knew it was the name of a pen. Wonder if he was related.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 02, 2021:

What a fascinating account of the origination of the ballpoint pen. I have used fountain pens in the past, and they can be messy. It is good to know that the ubiquitous Bic pens are made of recycled plastic.

BTW, the first video did not work, but the second one is amazing. What that artist does with a Bic pen is nothing short of amazing!

Happy New Year!

Ann Carr from SW England on January 02, 2021:

Ah yes! The biros and the Bics. What memories! I much prefer a fountain pen but the ballpoints were so useful and 'instant'! Not nearly as messy as the ink pen.

Amazing how intricate this history is, what with the war and so on. It always seems that luck plays a huge part in patents etc. Right place, right time, and not trusting a colleague!

I love writing, as opposed to typing, even though I have a good touch-typing rate. The best is the smooth fluid experience of a soft pencil on paper!

Great hub, Rupert!

Happy New Year!

Ann