Ballpoint Pens

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Ballpoint Pens

A ballpoint pen is an inexpensive writing instrument whose point is a tiny ball bearing that rotates against a supply of semi-liquid ink sealed in a cartridge. Most ballpoint pens are made of plastic or cheap metal. They are typically designed to be discarded after the ink runs dry. Others are designed so that their containers can be unscrewed and their ink cartridge replaced. The first of some 350 U.S. patents for such a device was issued to John Loud in 1888. No practical ballpoint pen was produced until 1938, when journalist Ladislo Biro (1899–1985) patented his own version in his native Hungary. Biro's pen used the same kind of quick-drying, smudge-free ink used to print newspapers. After emigrating to Argentina, Biro applied for a new patent. His patent was licensed by the British government during World War II (1939–45) for the Royal Air Force, which sought a pen that would not leak at high altitudes.

After the war, the Eversharp and Eberhard-Faber companies acquired the exclusive rights to Biro Pens of Argentina and began marketing ballpoint pens in the United States under the name of "Eversharp CA." The CA stood for capillary action. (Capillary action is the adhesive force between the molecules of the container and the molecules of a liquid in contact with the container. If no other force interferes, the liquid flows higher and higher in the container.) Meanwhile, a Chicago entrepreneur, Milton Reynolds (1892–1976), ignoring Eversharp's patent rights, started the Reynolds International Pen Company and began selling his own ballpoint, dubbed the "Reynolds Rocket." Reynolds claimed that his pen could write under water, a feature promoted in advertisements by swimming star Esther Williams (1921–). In October 1945, Gimbels' Department Store in New York City began retailing the pens for $12.50 each, selling out its entire stock of ten thousand on the first day. Another early manufacturer, the Frawley Pen Company, began marketing a retractable ballpoint called the Papermate. A successful Papermate promotional campaign featured sales agents writing on their customers' shirts with the company's pens and offering to replace the shirts if the ink did not wash out.

Despite the hype (exaggerated publicity) surrounding ball-point pens, consumers still hesitated to accept them fully because of the product's unreliability. Fountain-pen manufacturers promoted more convenient ink-cartridge models and asked educators to join a campaign arguing that ballpoints impeded good penmanship. In Europe, the Bic pen, manufactured by French entrepreneur Baron Bich (1914–1994) under a royalty agreement with Biro, emerged as the first inexpensive, reliable ballpoint pen in the mass market. After 1960, ballpoint pens finally began to win mass acceptance as the writing instrument of choice around the world.

—Edward Moran

For More Information

Bellis, Mary. "The Battle of the Ballpoint Pens." (accessed February 1, 2002).

Bic World. (accessed February 1, 2002).

Cobb, Vicki. The Secret Life of School Supplies. New York: Lippincott, 1981.

"History of Office Products: Ballpoint Pen." Write On! Business Solutions. (accessed February 1, 2002).

Whalley, Joyce Irene. Writing Implements and Accessories: From the Roman Stylus to the Typewriter. Detroit: Gale Research, 1975.