This Is How A Pen Changed The World

A render of a BiC Cristal ballpoint pen showing the innards.

Look around you. Chances are, there’s a BiC Cristal ballpoint pen among your odds and ends. Since 1950, it has far outsold the Rubik’s Cube and even the iPhone, and yet, it’s one of the most unsung and overlooked pieces of technology ever invented. And weirdly, it hasn’t had the honor of trademark erosion like Xerox or Kleenex. When you ‘flick a Bic’, you’re using a lighter.

It’s probably hard to imagine writing with a feather and a bottle of ink, but that’s what writing was limited to for hundreds of years. When fountain pens first came along, they were revolutionary, albeit expensive and leaky. In 1900, the world literacy rate stood around 20%, and exorbitantly-priced, unreliable utensils weren’t helping.

Close-up, cutaway render of a leaking ballpoint pen. In 1888, American inventor John Loud created the first ballpoint pen. It worked well on leather and wood and the like, but absolutely shredded paper, making it almost useless.

One problem was that while the ball worked better than a nib, it had to be an absolutely perfect fit, or ink would either get stuck or leak out everywhere. Then along came László Bíró, who turned instead to the ink to solve the problems of the ballpoint.

Bíró’s ink was oil-based, and sat on top of the paper rather than seeping through the fibers. While gravity and pen angle had been a problem in previous designs, his ink induced capillary action in the pen, allowing it to write reliably from most angles. You’d think this is where the story ends, but no. Bíró charged quite a bit for his pens, which didn’t help the whole world literacy thing.

French businessman Marcel Bich became interested in Bíró’s creation and bought the patent rights for $2 million ($26M in 2024). This is where things get interesting, and when the ballpoint pen becomes incredibly cheap and ubiquitous. In addition to thicker ink, the secret is in precision-machined steel balls, which Marcel Bich was able to manufacture using Swiss watchmaking machinery. When released in 1950, the Bic Cristal cost just $2. Since this vital instrument has continued to be so affordable, world literacy is at 90% today.

When we wrote about the Cristal, we did our best to capture the essence of what about the pen makes continuous, dependable ink transmission possible, but the video below goes much further, with extremely detailed 3D models.

Thanks to both [George Graves] and [Stephen Walters] for the tip!

80 thoughts on “This Is How A Pen Changed The World

    1. Agreed, you can only go so far with printed newspapers, books, a slate wax tablet and stylus (like my grandmother used in school), chalk, brushes, or pencils.

      It might be a good hook for a video, but it’s a real stretch to really think the ballpoint pen is singlehandedly responsible for most people learning to read.

    2. The first iteration “BiroMeyle”, was manufactured in Buenos Aires, Argentina after the Biro brothers and their friend and partner managed to flee from the nazis to settle in Argentina, was quite expensive and didn’t meet market success. It was only after a local bussinessman took over production and redeveloped the product to make it cheaper that it started to sell in bigger numbers. At first it was considered too cheap to be serious and so was often sold as a “toy”.

      1. Yes, it’s balderdash. The ballpoint pen in ***1950*** was not the invention that caused a great increase in literacy. It would have had to happen more than a century ago. If anything, it would have been the Gutenberg Bible. Or the acceptance of public education in most places, or the economic changes that made it possible to send children to school,

  1. I’ve heard that the new ink was a newspaper printer’s ink, which needs to sink into the paper and dry rapidly.

    I recollect Bics in elementary school – 19¢ each. If the point and ink tube were removed, the crystal tube made a dandy spit-ball launcher, quickly turning back into an innocuous pen.

    At one point Bic seemed to go mad – they replaced the hexagonal shape of their pens with a round body, prone to rolling off the surface they were placed on. And to add insult to injury, they called them “Biros”!

  2. Bic Crystal is not a pen; it is an Alien Probe. See, they just appear out of nowhere. Nobody recalls buying one, yet there may be a dozen over your desk. Nobody recalls using one until it’s ink get empty. We simply “loose them”. They are everywhere, spying humanity – writings, thesys, articles. They know our science from the scratches and drafts. Then, in the very same way they appeared… they vanish for good – probably, just getting back to the mother ship to unload information…

    …or, at least, that’s what the theory says. :D

    P.S.: Enrico Fermi started thinking about his paradox in 1950. Coincidence?

    1. …and let’s not forget that its hexagonal shape had an intimate relationship (almost an interface) with our most used media to store data in the dawn of the home computers – the cassette tape.


    2. There must be an alternate universe in hospitals. There are zero pens around ever. Asking to borrow someone’s pen is more or less a crime. Great way to weed out the n00bs. Actually asking (the gall!) then taking or using someone else’s pen is a huge power play. And if you don’t return it immediately a med student is well within their rights to demand the immediate dismissal of the department chair.

    3. Pens are use-once devices for me. I pull a new one out of the drawer, use it, and promptly lose it. Guess that’s better than what happened to them when I was in school… I’d chew on them until they broke into pieces and usually made a big mess.

      1. At 19¢ each the savings when you buy 6 for 99¢ is 15¢ if you had purchased them individually. However when you buy 12 at $1.98 you do not save any more money per pen than if you buy 6 so you do not double your savings. By this logic you should just by a 1,000,000,000 Bics and save $150,000,000.

    1. Writing has its uses: It helps me remember better than typing does, it’s a lot more “personal” when it comes to greeting cards, and when it comes to sticky-notes-used-as-an-annotated-bookmark, pen or pencil on paper is the way to go.

      Your point about cursive is well-taken though – I almost never see people write cursive anymore except when signing something or occasionally on a greeting card or other highly-personalized item.

    2. Here in Germany, a lot of paper works have to be filled out by hand, sometimes.
      Not everything is available as a digital document.
      Some stuff must be scanned on PC first, then filled out, printed and then being signed by hand.

      Cursive (or something equivalent) is still being taught in elementary schools here, as far as I know.
      Though the kids seem to have increasing problems with that, too. Not sure why. Maybe it’s degeneration or the result of diversity.
      My sister’s generation and my generation had no trouble with that, at least.
      Developing a pretty handwriting was another story, of course.
      But writing in cursive was a good training for developing fine motor skills, I guess.

      I hope that these things don’t die out during my lifetime, at least.
      It would be sad to know thst no handwritten birthday cards will be shared anymore.

      Imagine all the parents who nolongerw ill get cute birthday cards by their children.
      Would be really sad.

        1. Sure, absolutely, but who has still a mechanical typewriter? A few households, maybe.

          My family and me did use that method for years, as well, which apparently took the attention of the employees each time (in a positive way).

          Forms filled out nice and tidy with a mechanical typewriter seemed more serious than the usual ballpoint scribbling they’re used to get, I suppose.
          As if a colleague at the workplace had done it professionally, I suppose.

          Electric typewriters are hard to use here, though, because the spacing in the forms is a bit weird. Too small, too narrow.
          With a mechanical typewriter, you can move manually to the desired spot or go down a line and continue writing there.

          Anyway, your idea is correct. It can be done that way.

          It’s just a bit stressful at times that so much paperwork must be done in an old fashioned way.
          Because, bureaucracy didn’t get less over the years, but worse with digitalization.

          Common sense is apparently no longer enough. Especially with correspondence with the city or their social agencies.

          1. The ones I ever saw that called themselves “electric” instead of “electronic” were basically a mechanical one with a motor to strike the typebars when you pressed the keys, but otherwise nothing different; you could still loosen the paper and move it.

    3. Writing is far faster than even a really quick typist for the sort of things you want to note down while you are thinking of them, especially if what you are doing contains lots of mathematical or scientific character. Also easier to assign dimensions to a drawing etc as you go. Good as a starting point to link your thoughts together in many cases too.

      Really I think folks should hand ‘write’ a great deal more than they do, as its a far more versatile method of storing information than ASCII type stuff. But as Apple design managed to become ‘the smartphone’ all those great stylus phones, palmpilots etc and the programs for them became rather more fragmented and uncommon, while everyone always has the text to speech or terribly autocorrecting touchscreen keyboard in their pocket.

      1. I like the idea of the “reMarkable” tablet devices. I tend to write things down, then lose track of that piece of paper. Or I take forever to launch and navigate a digital note taking app to the point where I can take notes. These things present positive elements of both worlds: quick and dirty note taking (and exercising fine motor skills) along with digital storage and retrieval (handwriting->text capable). I just haven’t been able to justify the price for something I will inevitably leave laying lost somewhere someday.

        1. I just picked up a reMarkable 2 last week and have been liking it so far. I typically keep notebooks, and it’s nice to be able to have essentially every notebook organized and consolidated into one very portable device. While I can type faster than write by hand, I do a lot of equations and symbols that are much faster by hand; I’m sure a lot of other engineers and scientists keep notebooks for the same reason. Can also import and annotate pdfs as well.

        2. I found this DigiMemo - – at a thrift store years ago for $5, but you can find them on ebay for less than $50 today. Similar to the remarkable with the added benefit of still usnig real paper as well as digitization.

  3. Wasn’t there are story about how US astronauts had to develop a high-tech ballpoint pen for space use, whereas the USSR cosmonauts simply used a pencil instead? ;)

    Anyway, I don’t see what’s so important about a ballpoint pen.
    Back in school when we were allowed to move on from our ink pens (Pelikan and Lamy were two competing brands in my country back then),
    I didn’t use a ballpoint but an ink fineliner (a Stabilo).
    Writing with that was much cleaner and easier than with a ballpoint.
    It was like a modern alternative to an ink pen.

    1. That story about pencils in space, I think, had been debunked. Something about random pencil shavings of conductive carbon floating around everywhere. Maybe that debunking is just as made up as the original story though.

    2. “Space Pens” (still manufactured, and the refills can be used in most ball-point bodies) were developed by Fischer at considerable expense and difficulty to work in all kinds of bad environments, including zero-g.

      The Soviet space program was given a set of them so they wouldn’t get graphite into their electronics, which could be a serious problems in the oxygen-enriched capsule atmospheres.

      Fischer refills come with an adapter to put into your favorite old-school writing tool. A Zebra 701 stainless pen with a Fischer refill makes a write-anywhere pry tool/drift pin that’s nearly indestructible without breaking the bank. I just wish I could quit losing them.

      1. Fischer refills write well but I’ve had several leak on my sadly. The combination of the 701 and the zebra is amazing. I have 3 of them. I never lost a single one. I’m a very clumsy person but I never lost or broken one of those.

        Now try anything from the Pica catalog for mechanical stuff or home improvement. The Pica Ink is amazing.

  4. The part that has been egregiously overlooked in this article is that the ink is a thixotropic (shear-thinning) material. The shearing motion of the ball surface across the face of the ink column causes it to thin enough that it will stick in a microscopic layer on the surface of the ball and then to the writing surface. Once transferred to the paper, it is a thick liquid that is slowly absorbed into the cellulose fibers to become more stable – it never really “dries” by solvent loss as most people assume.

    Write something with a ball-point and then quickly try to smear it with your finger to see.

  5. I used a disposable pen today that that really has down the light and heavy line depending on the pressure used. That is the feature of traditional pen nibs which I never liked. There is a difference between calligraphy and just getting information readable. I found traditional handwriting hard to read because of the light and dark line and would rather have used a ball point pen, I couldn’t. 60 years ago the nuns forbid us to use ball point. The Palmer Method ruled, ugh. You’re holding the pen wrong, wack! We’ve come a long way, I hope.

    1. 50 years ago we used to sing this on the playground:

      Glory glory hallelujah
      Teacher hit me with ruler
      Met her at the door
      With a loaded forty four
      and teacher ain’t teaching no more!

      Try that today.
      Bloody fascists hate music!

  6. “it hasn’t had the honor of trademark erosion like Xerox or Kleenex.”
    For french talking people (at least in Belgium and France) it definitely had. A bic is commonly used instead of a pen, and never ever used for a lighter.

  7. I get repremanded at my blood donation sessions for signing their forms using my usual fibre-tipped pen, and made to go over my signature again using a ball-point pen. They always check, and notice.

    The reason? Apparently if the form gets wet the signature doesn’t run or smudge if it is done with a ball-point pen; with almost anything else, it does.

  8. I seriously doubt the Bic had such an effect on literacy.
    There was and still is a universally available solid state device in use for centuries that did the same job. It even had the advantage of being field serviceable.
    The humble pencil.

  9. “And weirdly, it hasn’t had the honor of trademark erosion like Xerox or Kleenex. When you ‘flick a Bic’, you’re using a lighter.”

    That’s actually a textbook example of trademark erosion because there are many lighters other than Bic. In my youth we called pens “pens”; no one ever said “I forgot my Bic”. Though I understand that on the BBC pens are often called Biros.

    No one (figuratively) in the U.S. calls pens “Bics”. Or any other brand name, save Flair or Sharpie. Thanks to Rich above for confirming my memory about the 19¢ price. When the Clic came out I like to fall out. Seem to remember a 49¢ price, and the colors! The 4 Color was a nice-to-have, but the clear one and the Clic are gangsta. I join in the chorus of disdain for the round opaque Stic. It is the institutional prison guard version of a once noble pen and should be eschewed.

    In high school there was an HP2000E computer but you couldn’t fit it in your backpack so I went through a lot of ink and paper; completely used up several of the clear Bic sticks while simultaneously using other pens and mechanical pencils. The achievement of course was not losing the pen.

  10. These pens aren’t the cheapest way to write large amounts, bottled ink being so much cheaper. Although, I don’t really know what the prices were like at first – maybe there weren’t any fountain pens that were both good and cheap enough that you could make your money back in a reasonable period. Dip pens and even homemade quill pens if you go back further in history can come in cheaper, at the cost of effort. You don’t need good ink for everything; lots of options are decent enough to work short-term, like boiling down plants for various colors. The supply of paper would be a larger concern depending on the time period. I know later on, the thing about cheap ball points that we all liked was that they were everywhere, and could write for a reasonably long time, even if they had been sitting for a long time in bad storage conditions – you’d need to scribble a bit at first, of course, but you wouldn’t need to sharpen them or clean them out or anything if they were still good. A fountain pen would be prone to leaking or drying out, even now.

    1. At the time the bic stick came out a decent quality fountain pen could be had for as little as $1, but I think $3-$5 was more common for good student pens. Meanwhile a high end pen with a 14kt gold nib and fancy retractable tube filling mechanism was $15. So in 1950 your break even point on a fountain pen was 2-8 bic sticks depending on what you got.

  11. Fun fact: while China has been called the “world’s manufacturer” they couldn’t make ball point pen tips until 2017. They couldn’t produce the required grade of stainless steel or do the precise machining.

  12. I threw out all my regular ball point pens and replaced them with space pens (pressurized ink ballpoint pens). They always write when you need them to, which you cannot say about the average ballpoint pen. It was a worthy investment. In addition I have a reMarkable and a SuperNote for digital note taking.

  13. An article applauding the cheap ballpoint pen and tying it to the improvement of world literacy rates. This in 2024 when the U.S. Government-run public education system has STOPPED teaching our children how to read and write with cursive script! What a stupid decision.

  14. Yo Editors, I expect more a critical thinking out of hackaday than this! The videos proposal that the release of a ballpoint pen in ***1950*** led to vast changes in worldwide literacy is not a justifiable statement. It would have had to happen long before that, and of course there are a few more likely changes to attribute it to, like the inventions of movable type and public education.

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