Tech Hidden In Plain Sight: The Ballpoint Pen

Would you pay $180 for a new type of writing instrument? Image via The New York Times

On a crisp fall morning in late October 1945, approximately 5,000 shoppers rushed the 32nd street Gimbel’s department store in New York City like it was Black Friday at Walmart. Things got so out of hand that fifty additional NYPD officers were dispatched to the scene. Everyone was clamoring for the hottest new technology – the ballpoint pen.

This new pen cost $12.50, which is about $180 today. For many people, the improved experience that the ballpoint promised over the fountain pen was well worth the price. You might laugh, but if you’ve ever used a fountain pen, you can understand the need for something more rugged and portable.

Ballpoint pens are everywhere these days, especially cheap ones. They’re so ubiquitous that we don’t have to carry one around or really think about them at all. Unless you’re into pens, you’ve probably never marveled at the sheer abundance of long-lasting, affordable, permanent writing instruments that are around today. Before the ballpoint, pens were a messy nuisance.

A Revolutionary Pen

A ballpoint, up close and personal. Image via Wikipedia

Fountain pens use gravity and capillary action to evenly feed ink from a cartridge or reservoir down into the metal nib. The nib is split in two tines and allows ink to flow forth when pressed against paper. It’s not that fountain pens are that delicate. It’s just that they’re only about one step above dipping a nib or a feather directly into ink.

There’s no denying that fountain pens are classy, but you’re playing with fire if you put one in your pocket. They can be a bit messy on a good day, and the cheap ones are prone to leaking ink. No matter how nice of a fountain pen you have, it has to be refilled fairly frequently, either by drawing ink up from a bottle into the pen’s bladder or inserting a new cartridge. And you’re better off using it as often as possible, since a dormant fountain pen will get clogged with dried ink.

Early ballpoint pens were modeled after fountain pens, aesthetically speaking. They had metal bodies and refillable reservoirs that only needed a top-up every couple of years, compared to once a week or so for fountain pens. Instead of a nib, ballpoints have a tiny ball bearing made of steel, brass, or tungsten carbide. These pens rely on gravity to bathe the ball in ink, which allows it to glide around in the socket like a tiny roll-on deodorant.

Bíró’s US Patent for the ballpoint. Image via US Patent #2390636

Biro’s Biros

Although Milton Reynolds beat everyone else to market in the States, his was not the first ballpoint pen ever. That honor belongs to a lawyer named John Loud, who patented a rolling ball pen in 1888. Loud wanted a pen that would write on anything from wood to leather. His revolving steel ball design was just the ticket. The only problem was that it was too rough for paper.

Many inventors tried to improve on Loud’s design over the next few decades, but nobody could get the ink right. That was until Lázló Bíró, a Hungarian journalist, decided to try creating an ink that dried much faster, like newspaper ink. He got his brother György involved, and he developed a more viscous ink.

Bíró patented the pen in Britain in 1938, but World War Two forced the Jewish brothers to flee to Argentina in 1941. With the help of a fellow escapee named Juan Jorge Meyne, they relaunched the pen in 1943 from their new home country, where it was known as the birome, derived from the two last names. In many European countries, biro is still used today as a catchall term for ballpoint pens.

In 1945, two US companies teamed up and bought the rights to sell the pens in North and Central America, but they were too slow. American businessman Milton Reynolds had seen the birome on a business trip to Buenos Aires and bought several of them. He changed Lázló Bíró’s design enough to avoid patent infringement and made it to market before Eberhard Faber and Eversharp could get pens in consumers’ hands.

The bestselling pen in the world. Image via Wikipedia

Life in Plastic, It’s Fantastic

Lázló Bíró may have invented the first practical ballpoint pen, but it was Marcel Bich who turned the ballpoint into the dime a dozen commodity it is today. In the mid-1940s, he bought an old factory near Paris and started cranking out pens under his new company, Societe Bic. Bich’s BiCs cost a fraction of other ballpoint pens. By adding disposability, Bich turned the ballpoint pen from a premium product to an everyman essential.

The BiC Cristal was first introduced in 1950. It sold its 100 billionth unit in 2006, making it the bestselling pen in the world. Little has changed about the design, which features a hexagonal body like a pencil, and a tiny hole to equalize pressure inside the pen so it won’t leak. At this point, you might be wondering how the Fisher space pen can write without gravity. The answer is in the special pressurized cartridge that allows it to write anywhere from any angle, even underwater.

The next big advancement in pens was making them retractable. There are many different retractable pen designs these days, ranging from simple to complex. In this excellent video, [engineerguy] explains the inner workings of a 1954 Parker Jotter, one of the first retractable ballpoint pens. It’s an eight-step process that involves a plunger, a cam body, and a pair of stop members that are fixed in place as part of the barrel.

I love pens, and I have a fairly sizable collection of them. It’s amusing to me that we’ve come full circle and have disposable fountain pens now, especially since they’re some of my favorites to write with.

Next time you use a pen, think about how portable they are now. Odds are good that it won’t leak, skip, or even run out of ink before you lose it.

122 thoughts on “Tech Hidden In Plain Sight: The Ballpoint Pen

  1. My personal favourite pens are Uni Ball Micro Eye UB-150 (home) and Pilot G2 0.7 (work). I really like UB-150, and have spread them out to family and friends. Several have started using them instead of cheapest ballpoints. Making sketches and drawings its really handy to have several colours and I have the four common black, blue, red and green, and a blue is usually in my left pants pocket.

      1. After reading these comments, I ordered a big pack of G2 minis from Amazon. Should arrive here in Korea in a few more days. I’ve been after a small pen to carry around with my small spiral notebook.

    1. Uni-ball Eyes are probably the best pens I have used so far. I’ve since switched to mechanical pencils for schoolwork since Uniballs have gotten a bit pricey, but the common colors wrote amazingly well. My dad always prefered orange, pink and cyan Uniballs for redaction, since nobody else used those at the publisher he works at. I might pick up the mantle at some point, too.

    2. My absolute favorite, which is also the largest technology advance imho since the ball point, are frixion pens. Erasable, but not the normal crappy erasable. It uses a thermochromatic (? Maybe) ink that changes color to clear when it reaches a certain temp. The eraser just uses friction to heat the page to make it disappear. Hence the name. Never decide between having an undo and clear bold text again.

    1. Sounds like the existing manufacturers did a decent job of holding onto their trade secrets, at least until the CCP decided to focus their attention on them. If the chinese industry figured it out entirely on their own I’ll eat my hat.

    2. I am skeptical of their spring design. That will have to kill the longevity of the pen, with failure of the spring tension holding it in the proper place, constant wear on the ball from the point of the spring. Is this at all similar to other designs? Why wouldn’t they steal the design and figure out their production problems as usual?

        1. That’s not true of all pens — only a few brands. Pull the refill out and if the end “pumps”, then that’s the kind that pumps to produce a more even flow of ink. If the refill has a transparent body, you can see the thick grease glob at the end and it moves down the pen as it empties. It there to keep the ink from drying out. If it’s too thick, the pen won’t work well, even with the capillary action of the ball end pulling ink.

          Note that if you write with an ordinary pen for too long in the upside-down position, most pens will be unable to pull that slug of grease along and the pen with soon “dry up” (i.e. get starved of ink near the ball).

          1. As it was a television commercial, I doubt they were speaking of “all pens”. It was a pen for writing on vertical or overhead surfaces.
            I do not recall if it was a commercial for the “Space Pen” or a competitor wanting to get in on the market.
            My mind is further cloudy on this next point; Leonard Nimoy may have been in the commercial.

      1. That’s the difference between no (net) force acting against the capillary action, and 1g acting against it. Basically writing upside down isn’t a great model for what happens in space.

  2. I’m impressed at the level of precision in the engineering of the “simple” ballpoint pen. I can get my favorite Bic Round Stic pens for less than 10 cents apiece in bulk quantities, though I’m still going through the 4 packs of 10 my wife bought me over 20 years ago! Despite the minuscule price, they perform as well or better than any other pen I’ve written with in my adult life (I had a Fisher Space Pen as a kid – Wish I hadn’t lost it).
    A 10-for-a-dollar commodity item that still works like new 20 years later is nothing short of amazing!
    Oh, and most of the pens disappeared (usually when borrowed by my wife, hence her gifting me 40 pens as a joke) rather than running dry. That also says something positive about the technology, in my opinion.

      1. Where I used to work our stationery cupboards were stocked with cheapish bic style ballpoint pens that were retractable, sometimes the mechanism would break when someone applied their pen to paper and the spring would propel the innards backwards over their shoulder. It was quite amusing.

    1. And I remember them as just “Bic pens”. in the late sixties they seemed a new thing, but maybe I was just too young. Decades later they were “crystal” and I thought they was some change to warrant a new name, but I saw no difference.

      My first pens were retractable, but I gave up on ball boint pens a long time ago, preferring fine tipped markers.

          1. Sounds like all the smoothness of a 25c Inkjoy coupled with all the convenience of a fountain pen.

            Though are disposable pens justifiable these days, with the no single use plastics crusade?

    2. There was a French company called “DiC Entertainment” that made children’s shows. It’s pronounced /ˈdiːk/, whereas the other thing is pronounced /ˈdik/. They had children saying the name every time the logo went up at the end of a show (“diiik!”), which probably didn’t help as much as they thought it would.

      1. I’m fine with almost every ball point pen nowadays. At least they don’t get stuck because I push instead of pulling. I know that there are fountain pens that don’t get stuck, at least they claim so, but I’ve never tried them. I’ve always thought that Leonardo da Vinci used to write right to left for this precise reason.

        1. As a lefty myself, I always figured it was too avoid smearing the ink or graphite across the page: I did the same thing with my high school biology notes, back when the first “erasable ink” pens came out, with essentially committed rubber cement under high pressure as the ink. Still remember the light blue haze across the page, and solid blue side of my left hand after the first page.

      1. A strict instruction in handwriting would lead to not wresting the hand on the page, we do that because we’re lazy and move the writing implement with our fingers rather than our arms. That would likely benefit left handed people, but people aren’t really taught cursive anymore. The left handed people around me at school were pretty much left to struggle through on their own being shown technique for right handed people that didn’t help them.
        I know I write much faster now on a keyboard than I ever did with a pen and paper. But there’s nothing quite like a blank page and the freedom to make any line or mark you like.

        1. “we do that because we’re lazy and move the writing implement with our fingers rather than our arms.”

          lol, wut?

          You could only degrade your motor control further by taping the pen to the end of a hockey stick

          1. Its a good thing our arms arent hockey sticks. We have muscle control over the whole thing! But seriously look artists drawing on paper. Their whole arm is used to draw each line and curve.

    1. It is commonly known as “Kulli” nobody wants to say Kugelschreiber, German is already wordy enough… the same way nobody says “pullover”, but “Pulli”. And yes, in Argentina we call it birome and the other thing is pullover :).

  3. “Unless you’re into pens, you’ve probably never marveled at the sheer abundance of long-lasting, affordable, permanent writing instruments that are around today.”

    Pfft! Long-lasting he says. *looks at box of never used pens that don’t write* It’s the ink printer model writ smaller.

    1. I wonder how many alternate uses people have found for the Bic crystal pens.

      My dad told me that he had made a flashing antenna tip for his truck back in the 70’s, with the bulb inside one of the colored pen caps. Apparently he’d come back to his truck in the parking lot to find hippies staring at the flasher.

      I’ve used the pen body as a screwdriver for security screws by melting the end a bit before molding it on the screw head.

      1. In primary school many years ago we made orange peel shooters out of them at lunchtime.
        Remove the end cap and tube/ball, put a piece of stickytape over the pressure hole. Press the cap end against the orange peel to cut the disc, then the ink tube to slide it to the ball end. Then punch another disc and, using the ink tube again, aim and quickly slide the second disc down the tube.
        There is a satisfying pop as the ball end disc fires. The second disc is now in place for reloading. Ahh the memories.

      2. One car was missing the button that yiu’d pull up to unlock the door. So it was just a threaded piece of metal.

        I took a Bic cap, which was the right diameter, and screwed it down onto the threaded bolt. Made it way easier to unlock that door.

    2. I found that if you pulled out the point and ink tube from a Bic pen, it also became the perfect tool to remove a motherboard from its case by squeezing the plastic feel holding it in the case.

  4. I have fond memories of when the Bic Clic first came out, available in multiple body colors, and the Bic 4 color pen. In high school I made a contest with myself of hanging on to the clear Bic stick pen until ALL of the ink was used up. Managed that several times.

    And then there were Flairs, a different technology, but the colors!

    1. I think I used Flairs for a bit, also the Berol Roller Balls or RollerWriters…. but they seemed to go crappy at some point, though thinking about it, it’s possible that the general standard of commodity lined paper declined from a nice sealed half gloss surface to a rougher more absorbent, thinner type, which made the Flairs and roller writers with their larger wetter balls, blodge more, making thicker lines and grind more paper dust off the surface while writing, which either clogged them or made blodgy messes as clumps of it shed.

    2. For some reason those of us who used cartridge pens in primary school tended to have a collection of the little balls from the used cartridges. I don’t really know why. As a competition it did favour those children who wrote larger, my writing was (and still is) very small so a cartridge would last a lot of words!

  5. When I was little, I remember my Dad letting me use his black Bic crystal. I just HAD to go find a straight pin to stick into that tiny hole in the side to see what would happen. The results were not good!

  6. In the early 60’s at a Catholic grade school we just got off of using Latin in mass but the middle ages scraped on. We could not use ballpoint pens only those cartridge loaded fountain pens. I remember what happened when that thin rubber bladder broke in one of those cursed cursive contraptions! Our Palmer method books were 60 years old by then.

  7. I still prefer writing with a fountain pen (although with the cheap ones I’ll end up looking like I just did an oil change) but the ballpoint is a significant innovation in writing.

    1. Well they made a big fuss advertising the roll on antiperspirants like they were a new thing in the early 80s, so either they had been recently developed or had been sitting around on the patent shelf waiting for a purpose until people were aware that aerosol propellants were killing the ozone layer.

      1. Ah, short version, they were invented soon after the pen, inspired by it, by Helen Barnet Diserens, marketed for a while in the 1950s, I guess popularity declined and they were off the market a while, perhaps due to aerosols becoming popular in the 60s, then I guess took their revenge in the 80s with a relaunch.

  8. You’ve missed a lot of the story.

    Most ball point ink doesn’t dry at all (else it would solidify in the ink tube of the pen, which is usually has a vent opening*), but is a thixotropic fluid.

    These are fluids that thin out on the application of shear force. The shearing action of the rolling ball “smearing” across the column of ink makes it thin out to the point where it can be captured by the surface of the ball and transferred to the paper’s surface and be absorbed by the fiber, whereupon they are pretty well trapped. For a demonstration, take a cheap ball point pen and write on a plastic surface. You can wipe the ink off for quite a while (it will eventually stain most polymers).

    Here’s a pretty good article on it all: https://www.cbc.ca/archives/the-ballpoint-pen-explained-by-david-suzuki-1.5143482

    *Yeah, yeah, nitrogen pressurized Space Pens….

  9. Several years ago, I decided that the cheapest Bic pens were too frustrating for me to consider them a bargain. The ball gets stuck too often, and they don’t write so smoothly even when they’re not stuck. I switched to Cross pens. Yes, they’re more expensive, but their simple stainless steel ones are, in the grand scheme of things, still cheap. I have one that I’ve been using for 20 years, and the fact that it has always written right the first time makes it more than worth the $1.25/year it has cost me.

  10. Modern fountain pens are pretty good. Even a cheap Lamy doesn’t dry out much even if left for weeks without use (depending on the ink – I use diamine). And they don’t leak in your pocket unless you do something really stupid.
    There’s even retractable ones.

    1. This! I wrote with the Pilot retractable for like a decade. The flap mechanism eventually gets all inked up and needs washing out every couple months, but it’s a great pen.

      Lamy fountain pens are less deluxe, but gets the job done. I refill the cartridges with my own ink, but that’s just because I really like the color. They seem to last nearly forever and don’t leak.

      1. You are looking for a Lamy safari (plastic body) if you want a more durable version the Al-Star has a metal body but is basically identical.

        There are other brands that make cheap decent pens.

  11. I’ve never used up a Bic Crystal pen. The cheap polystyrene body ends up cracking around the tip insert or they get cracked elsewhere. Not worth the bother to superglue them to repair. OOH the white tube Bic pens are pretty much indestructible, and with something about 1/2″ shorter for a ramrod the body makes an excellent spitwad shooter.

  12. My favorite is the Bic clic stic pens given away as promotional items. They aren’t particularly comfortable to use, and don’t provide a particularly good writing experience but they are rock solid reliable. I have yet to have one dry out or clog before it was empty. The fact that they are given away free doesn’t hurt.

  13. Pressurized pens are pretty much the only pens I would pay more than a dollar for after trying one, aside from artistic/specialty ones. I like the Rite in the Rain version.

    My phone has made pens no longer an everyday practical tool for storing information, and the space pens really seem to be the very best for the pen’s new role as highly reliable backups, and for things like pen and paper games, where any kind of electronics is completely non-immersive.

  14. Ahh yes i remember the amazing smooth reliable Bic pens back in high school. They were a wonder — before Bic, we had to deal with either messy fountain pens or crappy expensive ballpoints. Pencils were not cool.

    And there were pens that would write in outer space or under the water. But the ultimate was the marvelous pen that would write under whipped cream .

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uA16IQx-MJE

    Now there’s something you don’t hear about every day …

    1. Yeah, the erasable ink that worked by not actually sticking to the paper very well was pretty bad. I’m glad your link brought up the Pilot FriXion line though — I’m kinda hooked on their gel ink ballpoints right now. As the link details, they erase by having heat change the color of the ink to “transparent”.

      I got into them when I picked up a discounted Rocketbook Wave smart notebook — dotted paper with 2d barcodes so their app can scan the pages into PDFs, and then when the notebook is full, you can erase the whole thing at once by popping it in the microwave! — but those are expensive enough, and the pens good enough, that I’m doing most of my writing and scribbling with the pens.

  15. I’m surprised there is only one sentence on the Fisher space pen. The Fisher cartridge is quite nifty in that the ink is a semi solid gel with pressurized nitrogen behind the gel in the closed end of the cartridge. What makes it work is that the ink is thixotropic (it just sounds so erudite to say thixotropic!). That means the gel liquifies when subjected to the shear force of the rotating ball in the writing point, thus enabling the liquified in to flow out. When not writing, the solid nature of the ink prevents the nitrogen charge from pushing the ink out and causing a shirt pocket disaster. The Fisher ink cartridges come with plastic adapters that allow them to fit Parker and other collectible pens. I believe the Fisher qualified as a space pen as much for its ability to work in temperature extremes as its ability to write without gravity. I believe Cosmonauts used pencils for similar reasons, but then there is the potential for dust: conductive if graphite or insulating if a polymer. Either way, dust is not compatible with things like switches in a spacecraft.

    My everyday carry pen is a Fisher bullet pen that is a brass projectile shaped holder for the ink cartridge that stores in a real H&H 0.375 cartridge casing (minus the primer charge). I don’t do a lot of, actually not any, underwater writing, however the Fisher gives a nice smooth feel on paper. The Fisher used to be the smoothest, but now Ink Joy and G2 pretty much match Fisher.

  16. Personally my favorite brand is zebra I love the f701. Has a nice solid metal feel to it with replaceable cartridges. Biggest issue I find with ballpoint pens is if it hits the ground on concrete the balls tend to pop out and then you’re in for a very bad day. As well the ink does stay for a little while it tends to drip down and make writing a pain.

  17. Thanks for the memories of years ago as a tech writer. My pocket protector was my toolbox and modified several times to also serve as a badge holder. Yep, I was a nerd on steroids. Also remember having a regimen of laying out pencils, pens, and felt tips at my desk in a specific order. Hmm, maybe I was a nerd with OCD.

    I’m still highly disappointed that nobody ever invented the ultimate electric pencil.

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