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
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.