History of Ballpoint Pens

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Retractable ballpoint pen, disassembled and complete


A ballpoint pen is a writing instrument with an internal ink reservoir and a sphere for a point. The internal chamber is filled with a viscous ink that is dispensed at its tip during use by the rolling action of a small sphere. The sphere, usually from 0.5 mm to 1.2 mm in diameter, may be made of brass, steel,, tungsten carbide, or any durable, hard (non deformable) material.




An authentic "birome", made in Argentina by Bíró & Meyne

The manufacture of economical, reliable ballpoint pens arose from experimentation, modern chemistry, and the precision manufacturing capabilities of 20th century technology. Many patents worldwide are testaments to failed attempts at making these pens commercially viable and widely available. The ballpoint pen went through several failures in design throughout its early stages.

The first patent on a ballpoint pen was issued on 30 October 1888, to John Loud, a leather tanner, who was attempting to make a writing instrument that would be able to write on his leather products, which then-common fountain pens could not do. Loud's pen had a small rotating steel ball, held in place by a socket. Although it could be used to mark rough surfaces such as leather, as Loud intended, it proved to be too coarse for letter writing and was not commercially exploited.

In the period between 1904 and 1946, particularly alternatives or improvements to the fountain pen were invented.  Slavoljub Eduard Penkala invented a solid-ink fountain pen in 1907, a German inventor named Baum took out a ballpoint patent in 1910, and yet another ballpoint pen device was patented by Van Vechten Riesburg in 1916. In these inventions, the ink was placed in a thin tube whose end was blocked by a tiny ball, held so that it could not slip into the tube or fall out of the pen. The ink clung to the ball, which spun as the pen was drawn across the paper. These proto-ballpoints did not deliver the ink evenly. If the ball socket were too tight, the ink did not reach the paper. If it were too loose, ink flowed past the tip, leaking or making smears. Many inventors tried to fix these problems, but without commercial success.

 Laszlo Biro, a Hungarian newspaper editor, was frustrated by the amount of time that he wasted in filling up fountain pens and cleaning up smudged pages, and the sharp tip of his fountain pen often tore the paper. Bíró had noticed that inks used in newspaper printing dried quickly, leaving the paper dry and smudge free. He decided to create a pen using the same type of ink. Since, when tried, this viscous ink would not flow into a regular fountain pen nib, Bíró, with the help of his brother George, a chemist, began to work on designing new types of pens. Bíró fitted this pen with a tiny ball in its tip that was free to turn in a socket. As the pen moved along the paper, the ball rotated, picking up ink from the ink cartridge and leaving it on the paper. Bíró filed a British patent on 15 June 1938.

Earlier pens leaked or clogged because of incorrect viscosity of the ink, and depended on gravity to deliver the ink to the ball. Depending on gravity caused difficulties with the flow and required that the pen be held nearly vertically. The original Biro pen used capillary action and a piston that pressurized the ink column, solving the ink delivery flow problems. Later Biro pens had a spring that kept pressure on the piston, and still later the Biro pens used just gravity and capillary action.

 In 1940 the Bíró brothers and a friend, Juan Jorge Meyne, fled Nazi Germany and moved to Argentina. On 10 June they filed another patent and formed Bíró Pens of Argentina. The pen was sold in Argentina under the Birome brand (portmanteau of Bíró and Meyne), which is how ballpoint pens are still known in that country. László was known in Argentina as Ladislao José Bíró. This new design was licensed by the British, who produced ball point pens for RAF aircrew as the Biro; they found they worked much better than fountain pens at high altitude, the latter being prone to ink-leakage in the decreased  atmospheric pressure. 

Eversharp, a maker of mechanical pencils, teamed up with Eberhard Faber in May 1945 to license the design for sales in the United States. At about the same time a U.S. businessman, Milton Reynolds, saw a Biro pen in a store in Buenos Aires. He purchased several samples and returned to the U.S. to found the Reynolds International Pen Company, producing the Biro design without license as the Reynolds Rocket. He managed to beat Eversharp to market in late 1945; the first ballpoint pens went on sale at Gambles’ department store in New York City on 29 October 1945 for US$9.75 each. This pen was widely known as the rocket in the U.S. into the late 1950s.





Ballpoint pen rolling over a paper surface, leaving behind a trail of ink.

There are two basic types of ball point pens: disposable and refillable.

Disposable pens are chiefly made of plastic throughout and discarded when the ink is consumed; refillable pens are metal and some plastic and tend to be much higher in price. The refill replaces the entire internal ink reservoir and ball point unit rather than actually refilling it with ink, as it takes special high-speed centrifugation to properly fill a ball point reservoir with the viscous ink. The simplest types of ball point pens have a cap to cover the tip when the pen is not in use, while others have a mechanism for retracting the tip. This mechanism is usually controlled by a button at the top and powered by a spring within the pen body, but other possibilities include a pair of buttons, a screw, or a slide.



Tip of a ballpoint pen highly magnified

Rollerball Pens combine the ballpoint design with the use of liquid ink and flow systems from fountain pens;

Space Pens, developed by Fisher in the United States, combine a more than normally viscous ballpoint pen ink with a gas-pressured piston which forces the ink toward the point. This design allows the pen to write even upside down or in zero gravity environments. A Graphite Pencil can also be used in this way but produces graphite dust, requires sharpening, and is erasable, making it undesirable or unsuitable for use in some situations.



The International Organization for Standardization has published standards for ball point and roller ball pens:

In everyday life

Ballpoint pens are ubiquitous in modern culture. While other forms of pen are available, ballpoint pens are certainly the most common and almost every household is likely to have several. The fact that they are cheaply available and convenient to use means they are often to be found on desks and also in pockets, handbags, purses, bags and in cars — almost anywhere where one could conceivably need to use a pen. Ballpoint pens are often provided free by businesses as a form of advertising — printed with a company's name, a ballpoint pen is a relatively low cost advertisement that is highly effective (customers will use, and therefore see, a pen daily). Businesses and charities may also include ballpoint pens in direct mail mailings in order to increase a customer's interest in the mailing.

Some people also create art on themselves with the pens;  this is sometimes known as a ballpoint tattoo.  Because of this and of the widespread use of ballpoints by schoolchildren, all ballpoint ink formulas are non-toxic, and the manufacturing and content of the ink is regulated in most countries.

As art medium


Ballpoint pen drawing

In recent years, the ballpoint pen has become a popular medium for professional and amateur artists. The instrument offers immediate results with little or no preparation required, along with portability and relative low price. Point size and ink characteristics such as light fastness and opacity are considerations in choosing a make and model of pen.


Pentel R.S.V.P. ballpoint pens.

Compared to rollerball and fountain pens, ballpoints require more pressure to write. Ballpoints lack the free flowing supply of ink that other types have, requiring the writer to apply more pressure to the page. As a result, the ballpoint pens are less likely to leak. Their robustness makes them suitable where a firm press is required, namely for carbon copy-type forms where a layer of carbon paper transfers the writing, but not the ink, to subsequent copies. In such use other types of pens may over time get damaged beyond usability.

They have difficulty writing on surfaces with low friction (such as plastics, shiny surfaces, and wet or oily surfaces).  Because of the pen's reliance on gravity to coat the ball with ink, most ballpoint pens cannot be used to write upside down. However, certain special pens have been invented that do work upside-down.