Although the first patent for the ballpoint pen was granted in 1888, it took almost sixty years for the pen to be commercially available.
A ballpoint pen is a writing instrument with a tip that is continuously supplied with ink. The pen consists of a metal ball seated in a socket below an ink reservoir (the chamber or tube that holds a supply of ink). The ink reservoir is called an ink cartridge. When applied to a writing surface, the ball rotates and is bathed with just enough ink for smooth writing.
The ballpoint pen was developed as a solution to the problems of using a fountain pen for writing. Fountain pens need constant refilling with ink. The ink may leak or clog up the pen. The ballpoint pen, on the other hand, has its own ink supply which uses capillary action (a liquid's rising action through a tube) to keep the ink from leaking out. Afreely rotating ball at the tip of the pen sits on a socket. The part that is used for writing is exposed, while the rest stays inside the pen. When the pen tip is applied to a writing surface, the ball rolls, transferring ink from the ink reservoir to the writing surface. Another advantage of the ballpoint pen is that its ink is quick-drying.
Different designs of ballpoint pens are available; however, they share common components (parts), including the ball, a point, ink, an ink reservoir, and an outer housing. Some pens have caps, while others have a retractable system that exposes the pen point or retracts it (draws it back) when a button on top of the pen is pushed.
Some ballpoint pens have multiple ink cartridges that enable the user to have different colored inks in one pen. Other pens have refillable ink cartridges. Other types can be used in space, underwater, or over grease.
Trials and errors
In 1888, John J. Loud of Massachusetts obtained a patent for a pen with a rotating ball-tip that was constantly coated with ink by a reservoir above it. However, Loud and many others after him could not make the pen work because the ink either clogged the pen or leaked.
In the 1930s, two Hungarian brothers, Laszlo (1899–1985) and Georg Biro, developed a ballpoint pen using the thick ink used in printing newspapers. Laszlo had found that this type of ink dried fast. The brothers moved to Argentina during World War II (1939–45), and a company there produced the Biro pens. The English bought the right to produce the Biro pens for use by their Royal Air Force pilots after discovering that these pens did not leak at high altitudes. Soon after, the Biro pens became very popular in Europe.
BEFORE BALLPOINT PENS
Early men used sharpened stones to scratch pictures on the walls of their caves. The earliest versions of what we know today as pens were the Chinese brushes used as writing instruments around 1000 b.c.e (before the common era). The ancient Greeks and Romans fashioned hollow reeds for writing, sharpening one end to a point and filling the other end with a writing fluid. The quill pen was invented around 700 c.e (common era) and remained popular for almost 1,300 years. Made from goose, swan, or crow feathers, quill pens were sharpened using a penknife (this is where the word "penknife" came from). In the early 1800s, Bryan Donkin (1768–1855) of England invented the steel pen point for metal pens. In 1884, American Lewis Edson Waterman (1837–1901) invented the first fountain pen that carried its own ink supply. Just four years later, the first ballpoint pen was patented; however, it took nearly sixty years for this invention to take over the writing instrument market. Now, over one hundred million ballpoint pens are sold worldwide.
Ladislao (by which name Laszlo was now known) sold the U.S. rights to the Eversharp Company and Eberhard-Faber. However, a Chicago businessman, Milton Reynolds (1892–1976), beat them in marketing the Biro ballpoint pen. Reynolds, having acquired the pen on a visit to Argentina, copied the pen and sold it as Reynold's Rocket for the price of $12.50. Consumers soon realized that the pen did not perform as well as the manufacturer claimed. Sales dropped and Reynolds closed down his business. Other companies, including Papermate, Parker Pen Company, and A.T. Cross, came out with their versions of the ballpoint pen, which worked quite well.
At around the same time, in France, Baron Marcel Bich (1914–1994) started manufacturing BIC® pens (he had dropped the "h" from his name). By l958, he had opened up business in the United States and sold ballpoint pens at the inexpensive price of 29 cents apiece. BIC® ballpoint pens continue to dominate the market.
Several raw materials are used to make the components (parts) of a ballpoint pen. These include metals, plastics, and other chemicals. The original ballpoint pen had a steel ball. It has since been replaced by a textured tungsten carbide ball, which is less likely to lose its shape.
The ball is designed to be a perfect sphere that can grip almost any writing surface. The surface of the ball itself is made up of over 50,000 polished surfaces and pits (holes). The pits are connected by grooves that are continuous throughout the whole ball. This way, the ink is present not only on the surface of the ball but also inside the ball.
The point of the ballpoint pen is typically made of brass, an alloy (mixture) of copper and zinc. Brass is not only strong, it also has a pleasing appearance. It does not rust and can easily be formed to the desired shape. Brass may also be used to make the ink cartridge, the spring, or the body of the pen. The body of the pen is sometimes made of aluminum. Stainless steel may be used for pen components. Precious metals, such as gold, silver, or platinum, are used to plate more expensive pens, by which process a thin layer of one metal covers another metal. For example, a thin coating of gold may be applied over a brass pen.
Plastics have become popular raw materials for manufacturing ballpoint pens. They are rust-resistant, lightweight, easily formed, and inexpensive. Plastics are used to make the body of the pen, the ink cartridge, the push button, and part of the pen tip.
Ballpoint companies that make their own ink aim to make ink that is slightly thick, dries slowly in the pen reservoir, and is free of particles. These characteristics ensure the continuous flow of the ink for smooth writing. Various pigments and dyes are included in the ink formula to produce color. Other ingredients, including lubricants, surfactants, thickeners, and preservatives, are also added. These ingredients are usually mixed with castor oil, oleic acid, or sulfonamide plasticizer.
The Manufacturing Process
Ballpoint pens are made to order in great quantities. In advanced shops, pens are made from raw materials to finished products in less than five minutes. Manufacturers may differ slightly in the processes they use to make the pens; however, they generally follow the same basic steps.
Making the ink
1 Large batches of ink are made in a specific area of the manufacturing factory. Workers follow formula instructions for making the ink. Raw materials are poured into the batch tank and thoroughly mixed. Based on the formula used, these batches may be heated or cooled as necessary to blend the materials more quickly.
2 Some of the raw materials that come in large quantities are added directly into the batch tank using computer-run controls. These controls, activated by the press of a button, add the materials in specified amounts. They also regulate the mixing speeds and amounts of heating and cooling. The ink is checked at different points during its manufacture.
Stamping and forming of pen components
3 An outside company typically supplies the tungsten carbide balls. Various molds are used to make the other parts of the pen, including the body and the point. Sheets of brass are automatically inserted into stamping machines, which cut out thousands of small discs. The metal discs are first softened and then poured into a compression chamber, which consists of a steel ram and an ejector plunger.
The ram presses on the plunger, which retracts (draws back), forcing the metal into a die cast mold (a device for forming the brass). The plunger pushes out the excess brass, while the movable die cast mold releases the formed pieces. These pieces make up the parts of the pen.
4 The formed pieces are put in a bath to remove oils used in the diecasting process. They are removed from the bath and cut to the measurements of the particular pen. Next, the pieces are polished and cleaned again to remove any remaining oils. The ball is then inserted into the cavity of the pen point.
Forming the pen exterior and other parts
5 The plastic parts of the pen are made using the extrusion process or injection molding. In either case, the plastic materials come as granules or powder, which are placed into a large hopper (receptacle).
The extrusion process involves forcing the plastic granules or powder through a heated chamber with the help of a pressure screw. The resulting product—a thick, flowing mass—is forced through a die. The formed plastic piece is allowed to cool and cut. Pieces, such the pen body and ink reservoir, are made using this method.
Injection molding is used for pieces that have a more complicated form. These include the caps, ends, and mechanical components. In this process, the plastic granules or powder is heated. With the help of high pressure, the liquid plastic is forced into the molds, filling them. The plastic is allowed to cool and harden. The formed solid plastics are then released from the die.
Ink filling and assembly
6 After the parts that would make up the ballpoint pen are made, assembly takes place. Typically, the ballpoint is attached to the ink reservoir. The pieces are transported by conveyor belt to injectors, machines that fill the ink reservoir with the specific colored ink. If a spring is going to be part of the pen, it is placed on the barrel of the reservoir.
Final assembly, packaging, and shipping
7 The pen point and ink reservoir are placed inside the body of the pen. Other parts, including the caps and ends, are added. Other finishing steps, such as final cleaning or the addition of coatings or decorations, are also done.
The finished pens are packaged according to how they will be sold. Single pens are put into blister packages with cardboard backings. Groups of pens are packed into bags or boxes. These are then put into boxes, stacked on pallets (movable platforms), and shipped to distributors.
The quality of the pen components is checked throughout all the manufacturing steps. Since thousands of parts are produced each day, it is not possible to inspect each piece. Line inspectors check random samples visually. They also perform other, stricter tests, including length measurements of pen parts, and the condition of surface coatings.
Quality control of the batches of ink is also conducted. After all the ingredients are added to the batch, a sample is tested at the laboratory. Physical and chemical testings are done. If a batch does not meet standards, adjustments to the ingredients are made. For example, colors can be adjusted by adding more dyes.
In addition to the specific tests, line inspectors at each manufacturing stage check the components as they are made and look for things such as misshapen pens, inadequately filled ink reservoirs, and incorrectly assembled parts. Some finished products are also tested to make sure the pens write correctly.
The ballpoint pen remains a very popular writing instrument. Continuing research focuses on better pen grip for writing comfort, as well as on longer-lasting inks. Manufacturers also constantly come up with new barrel (the cylindrical housing) ideas, including futuristic designs and pastels that are especially popular with younger people. A new type of ballpoint pen, equipped with a battery, has a built-in light that allows for use in the dark.
Manufacturers will continue to develop processes that use metals and plastics requiring very little processing. This means little waste during production, increased manufacturing speed, and lower cost of the final products.
- A mixture of a metal and a nonmetal or a mixture of two or more metals. For example, steel is an alloy made of the metal iron and the nonmetal carbon.
- A yellowish metal that is an alloy of copper and zinc.
- Also called a die cast mold, a device used to shape materials by stamping or punching.
- ink cartridge:
- The chamber or tube that sits on top of the ballpoint pen's metal ball and holds a supply of ink.
- A grant by a government to an inventor, assuring him or her the sole right to make and sell the invention for a period of time.
- The process of shaping or cutting out material by forcing it into or against a mold.
For more Information
Gostony, Henry, and Schneider, Stuart L. The Incredible Ball Point Pen. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Limited, 1998.
Rigby, Rhymer. "Inventor whose fame is writ large." Management Today. (March 1998): p. 104.
"The Battle of the Ballpoint Pens." Inventors.http://inventors.miningco.com/library/weekly/aa101697.htm (accessed July 22, 2002).
"BIC®: How It's Made." BIC® World USA.http://www.bicworldusa.com/inter_us/stationery/how_is_made/index.asp (accessed on July 22, 2002).
"A Brief History of Writing Instruments." Inventors.http://inventors.miningco.com/library/weekly/aa100197.htm (accessed July 22, 2002).