Today, we are going to tackle the interesting story that brought us one of the most commonplace, necessary items we use everyday: the ballpoint pen.
In this article, we are going to talk about ballpoint history - the who, the when, and the why of the ballpoint pen (or as it is also called, the Biro).
Who Invented the Ballpoint?
László Bíró patented what is considered the first ballpoint pen in 1938, though he had been developing it for almost a decade beforehand with his brother György.
Born to a Jewish family in Hungary, Laszlo was a newspaper man and journalist by trade, while György was a dentist.
Frustrated with the writing tools of their day, Laszlo and György invented a special ink made with a paste instead of water that made the ballpoint possible.
But while Bíró is considered the original inventor, another man laid the foundation for the modern ballpoint pen.
When Was the Ballpoint Pen Invented?
John J. Loud obtained what is technically the first patent for a ballpoint pen, US #392,046, on 30th October 1888.
A leather tanner, Harvard-educated lawyer, and inventor, Loud was born on November 2, 1844. While tanning leather, he often needed to mark a point to cut. A pencil would be too faint and using a fountain pen made this process quite messy. In frustration Loud wracked his brain for an alternative.
He designed a writing tool that had a small rotating metal ball clutched in a socket.
Think of a roll-on bottle. A large ball sits inside a cylinder, clutched against the end by a socket that allows it to spin freely.
This mechanism allowed the ball to cycle ink from the reservoir inside the pen to the surface as the ball spun around in its socket.
Loud described the writing instrument as follows:
“My invention 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.”
Loud’s first ballpoint pen was great when used on leather, but unfortunately it was too rough on paper. The patent lapsed, paving way for better iterations.
Why Was the Ballpoint Pen Invented?
Despite the annals of incredible literature composed with feather quills and fountain pens, they were only reliable in the hands of skilled writers. However, the pace of life quickened with modern technology and literacy rates increased; demand arose for pens that didn’t require so much time, attention, and care.
Drawbacks to the ol’ quill and ink bottle (or even the early versions of the fountain pen) included:
- Ink needed to dry, requiring time or else the use something like sand to speed up the process
- Pens only worked on a paper writing surface
- They required hands on maintenance; from cutting a feather into shape, sharpening it, and keeping it clean
- They were really, really messy
- Great skill was needed to write consistently
The more literacy grew, the greater the demand for a writing tool that could handle writing on the go on any surface.
|Related Reading: How Do Ballpoint Pens Work|
It was quite a long journey to modern ballpoints. Years passed, patents increased in number. One flawed prototype after another became the order of the day.
Enter Laszlo Biro.
Biro faced a particular problem, even though the ball and socket mechanism was correct, the ink was the source of problems.
During summer, the ink from the first ballpoint pens overflowed. In winter, the ink didn’t flow and froze. At high altitudes, ink would seep out of the pens under the change in pressure.
Inventors came up with creative solutions to try and fix these issues such as springs and piston-pressurized ink reservoirs or capillary action to make the ink flow without gravity. But nothing quite delivered a guaranteed writing experience.
When the 20th century came knocking, success wasn’t far behind for two inventors, the Laszlo Brothers.
How Laszlo Biro Invented the Ballpoint Pen
Laszlo Biro invented the ballpoint by combining the ball socket mechanism with a new paste ink.
Constantly writing as a journalist, Laszlo Bíró became increasingly frustrated with the drawbacks of the fountain pen and was desperately in need of a pen that didn’t smudge on paper.
While visiting printing houses, Bíró noticed that the ink used on newspaper printing dried almost instantly with no smudges.
An idea popped into his head. He spoke to his brother György in the hopes that they could harness this ink. Aside from being a dentist, György was also a rather talented chemist.
Building on earlier patented designs like Loud’s, they started by putting newspaper ink into a ballpoint. Unaltered, the newspaper ink was too thick and clogged the mechanism.
Harnessing György’s abilities as a chemist, they started altering the formula of the ink.
The key was in the oil-based ink used in newspaper print. Water-based ink leaked out of the pen and needed to saturate into the fibers of the paper (which is why dry time was critical). But oil-based ink sat on top of the paper, preventing it from bleeding through the page and allowing it to dry almost on contact.
In 1931, they launched their ballpoint pen at the Budapest International Fair. Seven years later, in 1938, the Bíró brothers obtained patents in Britain and France and went to work to start selling their new ballpoint.
What is the Biro Pen?
The Biro Pen is the modern ballpoint pen. In fact in man English speaking countries like the UK, the name for a ballpoint is a biro, named for Mr. Laszlo Biro himself.
The Biro ballpoint pen features in the patent were described as:
- A system of getting the ink from the reservoir to the rotating ball.
- An airtight reservoir for storing a particularly dense ink.
- A sealing mechanism in the metal ball that would prevent ink oxidation/evaporation.
- A free ball nib.
Laszlo Biro’s work solved each one of the major problems pens had faced prior to this point.
After a chance encounter with the president of Argentina, Augustin Justo, the Biro brothers moved to South America along with their new business partner, Juan Jorge Meyne.
It was 1941 and they barely escaped persecution by rising anti-Semitism in Europe.
There in Buenos Aires, they launched the Bíró Pens of Argentina factory.
Biro Pens named the ballpoint pens Bíróme (a merger of the names Bíró and Meyne). To this day, pens in Argentina are still referred to as Bírómes.
During World War II, the British Royal Air Force placed an order for 30,000 pens since they could be used in the air without leaking.
Aside from this, the Biro pen stayed relatively under the radar outside of South America.
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The Ballpoint Pen in America
In the wake of World War II, the modern ballpoint pen was introduced to the United States. Eversharp acquired the Central and North American rights to the ballpoint pens, which cost Eversharp a pretty half million dollars.
Meanwhile, Milton Reynolds was designing his version of the ballpoint pen after he saw the Biro. Needing to make major changes to prevent infringing on Laszlo Biro’s patent, Reynolds’s pen used liquid ink that flowed with gravity.
Reynolds knew that the gravity mechanism risked leakage. Yet he still started production on October 29, 1945, forming the Reynolds International Pen Company.
The Reynolds Rocket was launched at Gimbels Department Store, New York City for a whopping $12.50 (equivalent to $170 in 2017). The pen was an instant hit and soon the US market was saturated with ballpoint pens like the ones from Reynolds, Eversharp, and the Parker Jotter.
But each of these pens still had their issues, usually related to ink problems.
How the BIC Company Made the “Modern” Ballpoint
Thanks to Marcel Bich, the Bíróme finally made it to the US.
Laszlo Biro had never achieved mass market success with the Biro Pen, but was ready for a to change.
Marcel Bich was a French manufacturer who understood the potential value of a working ballpoint. He licensed the designs of the ballpoint pens by Bíró for two million dollars.
With those, he formed the Bic Company in 1953. The company struggled with sales initially but achieved unsurmounted success with the world's most popular pen, the Bic Cristal.
Plastic, cheap to manufacture, and incredibly usable, his commercially successful ballpoint pen sold more than any other writing instrument in history.
Bich took the ballpoint from the working, problem-solving Biro, and made it accessible to anyone who wanted one with the disposable pen.
How the Ballpoint has Changed the World
Since it went into production in the 1950s, over 100 billion Bic Cristals have been sold.
The invention of the ballpoint pen meant suddenly anyone who wanted to write or draw could at any time at any place.
There could not have been a more primed market for the technological advancement of the pen as education and literacy rates were steadily increasing by the early 20th century.
Increased literacy rates meant an increased demand for writing instruments of which the ballpoint was now the cheapest, most versatile, and most accessible writing instrument available.
Today, marketing research firm TechNavio reports “Demand for basic writing instruments [remains] high in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East due to the increasing population and literacy levels...”
The ballpoint has made writing possible in any climate, situation, or environment.
Even in the ever technologically advancing world of electronics, the pen is still considered a vital tool, essential to daily work with an ever increasing market.
It is almost incomprehensible to imagine the state of the modern world without the invention of the ballpoint pen thanks to the work of Loud, the Biros, and Bich.
In the following table I have summarized the evolution of the ballpoint pen through the decades:
|Decade||Dominant Design Features||Notable Brands|
|1920s-1930s||Early experimental designs||Waterman, Sheaffer|
|1940s-1950s||Introduction of successful ballpoint designs||Bic, Parker, Paper Mate|
|1960s-present||Refinement of materials and features||Cross, Pilot, Uni-ball|
Other Fun Facts About Ballpoint Pens
Last but not least, I wanted to share some interesting facts I came across in my research about the ballpoint pen.
What's the world's smallest pen?
The world’s smallest pen is the 'Nanofountain Probe’. Scientists normally use it for nanoscale on-chip patterning. The lines produced by this device are only 40 nanometers wide.
What's the world's biggest pen?
The world's biggest pen was designed by Acharya Makunuri Srinivasa in 2011. The pen weighs 37 kilograms and is 5.5 meters high. The ballpoint pen is fully functional and holds the Guinness world record. Besides that, it looks stunning!
How many words can a pen write?
Before an average pen runs out of ink, it can write 45,000 words - give or take.
What is the most common type of pen?
The most common types of pens are the gel pen, the ballpoint pen (Bíró pen), the brush pen, the fountain pen, and the marker pen. Markers and highlighters are also types of pens.
What is the ballpoint pen ink made of?
The viscous ink of a ballpoint pen is made of a paste containing about 25-40 percent dye that is suspended in oil.
Was the Bic Cristal in the MOMA?
The Bic Cristal was featured in an installation on design in the MoMA called Humble Masterpieces.
The history of the ballpoint pen journeys from problematic design that only wrote well on leather to a pen so well designed and commonplace you probably have at least 4 handy in your desk drawer.
Pioneered by the likes of Loud and the Biro brothers, the ballpoint is an invention that has revolutionized business, education, and daily life.
We got interested in learning more about the ballpoint since they are the whole purpose of our business at Dayspring Pens.
What makes you interested in the history of the ballpoint? Leave a comment below!
And if you’re looking for a ballpoint pen to give as a gift, take a look at our complete collection of personalized pens.
Sam Di Nardo is an author for Dayspring Pens, where she has honed her expertise in ballpoint, rollerball, gel and fountain pens since joining the team in 2018.
From her initial role as an Engraver to becoming the Production Manager, Sam's journey has been marked by her passion for the history, manufacturing, and the unique value of gifted writing instruments.
A graduate of Regent University with a degree in English Literature and a special interest in Old Norse literature, dive deeper into Sam's world and discover why she's your trusted guide in the realm of gift pens.