BallPoint Pen History

By Mary Bellis

"No man was more foolish when he had not a pen in his hand, or more wise when he had" - Samuel Johnson.

A Hungarian journalist named Laszlo Biro invented the first ballpoint pen in 1938. Biro had noticed that the type of ink 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. The thicker ink would not flow from a regular pen nib and Biro had to devise a new type of point. He did so by fitting his pen with a tiny ball bearing in its tip. As the pen moved along the paper, the ball rotated picking up ink from the ink cartridge and leaving it on the paper. This principle of the ballpoint pen actually dates back to an 1888 patent owned by John J. Loud for a product to mark leather. However, this patent was commercially unexploited. Laszlo Biro first patented his pen in 1938, and applied for a fresh patent in Argentina on June 10, 1943. (Laszlo Biro and his brother Georg Biro emigrated to Argentina in 1940.) The British Government bought the licensing rights to this patent for the war effort. The British Royal Air Force needed a new type of pen, one that would not leak at higher altitudes in fighter planes as the fountain pen did. Their successful performance for the Air Force brought the Biro pens into the limelight. Laszlo Biro had neglected to get a U.S. patent for his pen and so even with the ending of World War II, another battle was just beginning..

Historical Outline - The Battle of Ballpoint Pens

The first pen-writing instrument was the quill pen dipped into dark paint. There became a need to lengthen the time between dips, eliminate splatter, eliminate smearing and improve pen handling.

  • Early 1800s: The first designs for pens that could hold their own ink patented.
  • 1884: L.E. Waterman, a New York City insurance salesman, designed the first workable fountain pen, the fountain pen becomes the predominant writing instrument for the next sixty years. Four fountain pen manufactures dominate the market: Parker, Sheaffer, Waterman and Wahl-Eversharp.
  • 1938: Invention of a ballpoint pen by two Hungarian inventors, Laszlo Biro and George Biro. The brothers both worked on the pen and applied for patents in 1938 and 1940. The new-formed Eterpen Company in Argentina commercialized the Biro pen. The press hailed the success of this writing tool because it could write for a year without refilling.
  • May 1945: Eversharp Co. teams up with Eberhard-Faber to acquire the exclusive rights to Biro Pens of Argentina. The pen re-branded the “Eversharp CA” which stood for Capillary Action. Released to the press months in advance of public sales.
  • June, 1945: Less than a month after Eversharp/Eberhard close the deal with Eterpen, Chicago businessman, Milton Reynolds visits Buenos Aires. While in a store, he sees the Biro pen and recognizes the pen’s sales potential. He buys a few pens as samples. Reynolds returns to America and starts the Reynolds International Pen Company, ignoring Eversharp’s patent rights.
  • October 29, 1945: Reynolds copies the product in four months and sells his product Reynold's Rocket at Gimbel’s department store in New York City. Reynolds’ imitation beats Eversharp to market. Reynolds’ pen is immediately successful: Priced at $12.50, $100,000 worth sold the first day on the market.
  • December, 1945: Britain was not far behind with the first ballpoint pens available to the public sold at Christmas by the Miles-Martin Pen Company.
The Ballpoint Pen Becomes a Fad

Ballpoint pens guaranteed to write for two years without refilling, claimed to be smear proof. Reynolds advertised it as the pen "to write under water." Eversharp sued Reynolds for copying the design it had acquired legally. The previous 1888 patent by John Loud would have invalidated everyone's claims. However, no one knew that at the time. Sales skyrocketed for both competitors. Nevertheless, the Reynolds’ pen leaked, skipped and often failed to write. Eversharp’s pen did not live up to its own advertisements. A very high volume of pen returns occurred for both Eversharp and Reynolds. The ballpoint pen fad ended - due to consumer unhappiness.

  • 1948: Frequent price wars, poor quality products, and heavy advertising costs hurt each side. Sales did a nosedive. The original asking price of $12.50 dropped to less than 50 cents per pen.
  • 1950: The French Baron called Bich, drops the h and starts BIC and starts selling pens.
  • 1951: The ballpoint pen dies a consumer death. Fountain pens are number one again. Reynolds folds.
  • January, 1954: Parker Pens introduces its first ballpoint pen, the Jotter. The Jotter wrote five times longer than the Eversharp or Reynolds pens. It had a variety of point sizes, a rotating cartridge and large-capacity ink refills. Best of all, it worked. Parker sold 3.5 million Jotters @ $2.95 to $8.75 in less then one year.
The Ballpoint Pen Battle is Won
  • 1957: Parker introduces the tungsten carbide textured ball bearing in their ballpoint pens. Eversharp was in deep financial trouble and  tried to switch back to selling fountain pens. Eversharp sold its pen division to Parker Pens and Eversharp's assets finally liquidated in the 1960’s.
  • Late 1950's: BIC ® held 70 percent of European market.
  • 1958: BIC buys 60 percent of the New York based Waterman Pens.
  • 1960: BIC owns 100 percent of Waterman Pens. BIC sells ballpoint pens in U.S. for 29 - 69 cents.
The Ballpoint Pen War is Won

BIC ® dominates the market. Parker, Sheaffer and Waterman, capture the smaller upscale markets of fountain pens and expensive ballpoints.

  • Today: The highly popular modern version of Laszlo Biro's pen, the BIC Crystal, has a daily world wide sales figure of 14,000,000 pieces. Biro is still the generic name used for the ballpoint pen in most of the world. The Biro pens used by the British Air Force in W.W.II worked. Parker black ballpoint pens will produce more than 28,000 linear feet of writing -- more than five miles, before running out of ink.

The history of the ballpoint pen
Article added on October 17+18, 2002
The history of the ball-point pen
In 1879 in Providence, Rhode Island, Alonzo T. Cross invented the stylographic fountain pen, a precursor of the ball-point pen. He engaged in competition with Duncan Mackinnon, the other stylographic pen inventor. In 1880 A. T. Cross separated his business from his father's and renamed his company the A. T. Cross - Pen and Pencil Manufacturer.
The fountain pen by Lewis Edson Waterman in 1884 was another step forward in the development of writing instruments. The problems of ink, e.g. drying out, remained. They could be overcome by a ballpoint pen. The first to think of it was the German inventor Baum who patented a ball-point pen (Kugelschreiber) in 1910.
However, the first man to actually develop and launch a ball-point pen was the Hungarian László Jozsef Bíró (1899-1985) from Budapest, who in 1938 invented a ball-point pen with a pressurized ink cartridge. He is considered the inventor of today's ball-point pen. Working as a journalist, Biro noticed that the ink used in newspaper printing dried quickly, leaving the paper dry and smudge-free. From there he got the idea to use the same type of ink for writing instruments. Since the thicker ink would not flow from a regular pen nib, he fitted his pen with a tiny ball bearing in its tip. Moving along the paper, the ball rotates picking up ink from the ink cartridge and leaving it on the paper. This principle of the ballpoint pen dates back to a never commercially exploited patent of 1888 owned by John J. Loud for a product to mark leather.
At the very end of 1938, just one day before anti-Jewish laws became active in Hungary, Bíró fled to Paris before emigrating to Argentina. Agustin P. Justo had suggested to him to travel to Argentina. He gave him his signed card which should allow Bíró to obtain a hard to get visa for the South American country; only in the consulate Bíró found out Justo was no one else than the Argentine President.
In 1943 Bíró obtained a new patent in Argentina and became the country's leading producer of ball-point pens. The British government bought the patent as the pen's functioning was not affected by high altitude air pressure and would thus be of use to navigators in airplanes. In 1944, a pen under the brand name Biro was produced for the Royal Air Force. Bíró died in Argentina in 1985.
In 1945 Eversharp Co. and Eberhard-Faber acquired the exclusive rights to Biro Pens of Argentina. Their pen company was re-branded the "Eversharp CA" with CA standing for Capillary Action.
Shortly afterwards in 1945, the Chicago businessman Milton Reynolds brought some of Biro's pens from Argentina to the US. With the help of William H. Huenergardt, he created the Reynolds Ball Point Pen which was put on the US market at the end of 1945 - ignoring the patent acqurired by Eversharp. It became an instant success. However, like Biro's and Eversharp's pens, they were not perfect and often leaked and/or smeared.

By 1951, the fountain pen regained its leading position with consumers. The ballpoint pen seemed to have lost the battle. However, in 1954, Parker Pens introduced its first ballpoint pen called The Jotter which became a success. The same can be said of Patrick J. Frawley Jr. who, in 1949, bought from the Los Angeles chemist Fran Seech an improved ink formula. Seech had lost his job when the ballpoint pen company he was working for had gone out of business. He continued to improve the ink formula he had been working for. Frawley used it when he launched his Frawley Pen Company in 1949. Within one year, he put an improved ballpoint pen on the market, the first pen with a retractable ballpoint tip with no-smear ink. Frawley named his pen the "Papermate". It became a huge success, selling hundreds of millions of copies within a few years. However, within the ballpoint pen battle, the French Baron Marcel Bich, who had founded the BIC company in 1950, began to dominate the market in Europe and the US in the late 1950s and, by 1960, owned 100% of the Waterman pen company.
The Fisher Space Pen
In September 1945, Julian Levy, Milton Reynolds' son-in-law, had asked Paul C. Fisher to help improve their pen not yet launched. After two days of testing, Fisher declined the offer because he came to the conclusion that "the basic principle is not sound". Despite this evaluation by Fisher, Reynolds had made some five million dollars after taxes by January 1946.
In October 1948, Paul C. Fisher founded his own firm, the Fisher Space Pen Company. In the 1950's, there were dozens of ballpoint models using nearly as many different cartridges. Therefore, in 1953 Fisher invented the "Universal Refill" which could be used in most pens. It was a good seller since store owners could reduce their stock of assorted refills.
Fisher continued to improve his refill and, in 1966, came up with a perfect solution using thixotropic ink: It remains semisolid until the shearing action of the rolling ball liquefies it. The ink flows only when needed. The cartridge is pressurized with nitrogen so that it does not rely on gravity to make it work. It writes in freezing cold, desert heat, underwater and upside down (1965: patent # 3,285,228 - the original AG7 Anti-Gravity Pen developed by Paul Fisher).

Paul C. Fisher invented his pen and refill at the right time: It was the era of the space race. Astronauts involved in the Mercury and Gemini missions had been using pencils to take notes in space since standard ball points did not work in zero gravity. The Fisher cartridge did work in the weightlessness of outer space and astronauts, beginning with the October 1968 Apollo 7 mission, began using the Fisher AG-7 Space Pen and cartridge.
Since then, Fisher pens have been the only ones used on all manned space flights by the USA and the USSR: the Apollo missions, the landings on the moon, the Space Shuttle flights, the Sojus flights, the MIR space station missions and the International Space Station ISS.
Fisher Space Pens write in freezing cold and desert heat, from minus 34 degrees Celsius up to plus 143 degrees Celsius, as well as underwater, upside down, on oily and greasy surfaces. The Fisher Bullet Pen was featured in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
By the way: In 1960, Paul C. Fisher run in the New Hampshire Presidential Primaries against John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

Sensa ball-point pens
In 1985, Boyd Willat decided to create an ergonomic writing instrument. After ten years of research, he introduced SENSA in 1995. Willat had determined the ideal weight for a ballpoint pen. He had selected an aeronautical alloy for its strength, weight and other properties. He developed an interactive plasmium filled gripped system which has a morphic reforming quality through an interdependent relationship between the contour of the inner spindle, shape of the gripping section jacket and fluid characteristic of the plasmium. The result is a reduction of the overall stresses which normally occur through writing by over 50%. The inner plasmium fluid is displaced with the pressure from your fingers. A drive system was engineered within a tiny motor house. Boyd Willat chose a heat-tempered steel for a lifetime of exacting tension. As it enters the barrel the clip turns downward at a 180 degree angle and is press-fitted between the barrel and internal motor house.
As refill, the SENSA uses the Fisher Space Refill, used on all manned space flights, as we have seen above. In the rear portion of the refill a shot of nitrogen is injected prior to capping which allows for the writing under water, upside down, over grease, over photographs, in zero gravity and from 40 degrees Fahrenheit below up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit above zero.
SENSA's aeronautical aluminum alloys are bathed in ultra high temperature vats which permanently head infuse metallic color particles into the metal. SENSA offers light weight, tensile strength and color brilliance.
SENSA, "the world's most comfortable pen" was featured in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and has won the Silver Industrial Design Award in 1995.
In Germany, SENSA by Willat and Fisher Space Pens are available through Standardgraph.

Write on: Ballpoint pen turns 60                                                                                                  By: LYNNE FRIEDMANN - For the North County Times | Posted: Sunday, November 27, 2005 12:00 am

On a chilly fall morning in 1945, 5,000 shoppers jammed the sidewalks outside Gimbel Brothers Department Store in New York City. A sea of fedoras and overcoats, the throng had been drawn by a full-page newspaper ad the day before announcing the sale of the first ballpoint pens in the United States. The new writing instrument was heralded as "fantastic … miraculous … guaranteed to write for two years without refilling!"

Six hours after store employees unlocked the doors —— and jumped out of the way —— Gimbel's entire stock of 10,000 ballpoints was sold at the eye-popping, postwar price of $12.50 each. Within three months, 2 million ballpoint pens would be sold through 60,000 retail outlets in the United States and 37 foreign countries. The ballpoint pen remains one of the most successful new-product introductions in American history.

Despite its auspicious debut, the price of this luxury item soon dropped to 19 cents, after the first ballpoints proved shoddy and generally unreliable. But instead of becoming a footnote in history, ballpoint pens managed a dramatic comeback to become an indispensable item. One can hardly imagine the world without them.

What nearly torpedoed the nascent ballpoint pen industry —— and what ultimately saved it —— was ink.

For centuries, mankind had devised numerous ways to deliver ink to papyrus, parchment and writing paper. The first practical writing instrument designed to hold its own reservoir of ink was the fountain pen patented in 1884 by Lewis Waterman. It was a significant leap forward in writing technology, but fountain pens were notorious for leaking.

The ballpoint pen would be the ultimate in form and function, but it was a long time in the making. In 1888, just four years after Waterman introduced the fountain pen, a Massachusetts leather tanner named John Loud patented a "rolling-pointed fountain marker" that contained a reservoir of ink in a cartridge and a rotating ball-bearing tip, constantly bathed on one side with ink, for the application of a thick ink to mark leather. But Loud's pen was never manufactured.

Over the next five decades, 350 additional patents would be issued for similar ball-type pens, but none would advance beyond the sketch pad. The ballpoint pen was an idea waiting for the right moment in history.

It was physics and World War II that eventually led to the downfall of the fountain pen as an everyday writing instrument.

In the European and South Pacific theaters of war, fighter aircraft played a major role in military operations. When not engaged in aerial combat, pilots kept detailed logbooks of their missions that included important, potentially life-saving information on aircraft performance. But at the reduced air pressure of high-altitude flying, pilots discovered that their fountain pens flooded. A new type of pen was urgently needed.

The British government got wind of a ballpoint pen design invented by Hungarian brothers Ladislas and George Biro, a newspaperman and chemist, respectively. The Brits licensed rights from the Biros to produce the first ballpoints for the Royal Air Force. Literally field-tested in battle, the ballpoint more than proved its worth.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, American flyers stationed in Argentina made their own discovery of Biro ballpoints, after the brothers fled Europe for Buenos Aires and introduced the product there. This prompted the U.S. War Department to ask American manufacturers to create a similar writing instrument.

Thus fortune smiled on the Biro brothers in May 1945, when the American company Eversharp paid $500,000 for the exclusive manufacturing and marketing of the Biro ballpoint for the North American market.

Convinced it was poised to make a financial killing, Eversharp poured millions into product development, production and advertising in order to rush the pen to the U.S. market as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately for Eversharp, an American named Milton Reynolds arrived in Buenos Aires on a business trip in June 1945 and stumbled upon a Biro pen. Reynolds immediately saw the potential for the ballpoint. He promptly bought several, and quietly returned to Chicago.

Discovering that Loud's original 1888 patent had long since expired, placing the ballpoint in the public domain, Reynolds wasted no time making a poor knockoff based on the Biro design.

Capitalizing his pen company with $26,000, Reynolds set up a makeshift factory with 300 workers who began production on Oct. 6, 1945, stamping out pens from precious scraps of aluminum that hadn't been used during the war for military equipment or weapons.

Just 23 days later, the "Reynolds Rocket" ballpoint caused the stampede at Gimbel Brothers Department Store.

Following the ballpoint's debut in New York City, Eversharp sued Reynolds, but found that it didn't have a legal leg to stand on because the Biros had failed to secure a U.S.patent on their invention. Meanwhile, a feeding frenzy erupted, as dozens of companies saturated the market with poorly designed ballpoints, each pen boasting new and better features.

Ballpoints flew off store shelves, but despite the hoopla, the Reynolds Rocket and other early ballpoints were junk. Primitive writing instruments, they skipped, bled or rolled heavy, gelatinous ink that refused to dry.

To the horror of bankers and attorneys, early ballpoint ink faded when exposed to light. The Reynolds Rocket was derided as the only pen that would produce eight carbon copies and no original. The same people who lined up for blocks to buy ballpoints were now angrily demanding refunds. Soon, Milton Reynolds was out of business, never to be heard from again.

As the ballpoint pen market grew, other businesses sprang up to support the industry with specialty services and products, most centered around ink. In fact, it was commensurate improvements in ink that saved the ballpoint pen industry.

Once recovered from its initial stumble, the ballpoint pen couldn't have come to market at a better time. The U.S. population had nearly doubled from 76 million at the turn of the century to 150 million by 1950. More significantly, the United States experienced phenomenal economic growth following World War II. More Americans now considered themselves part of the middle class, and they were eager to spend. A central part of many advertising campaigns, ballpoint pens imprinted with product names and company slogans were freely given away. Ballpoint pens were suddenly found everywhere.

In addition to a large consumer population, the postwar era witnessed the first wave of baby boomers entering grade school. Whereas a generation before, children wrote their lessons with a shared stubble of chalk on a slate board and only the affluent could afford a fountain pen, now every child carried ballpoint pens to school. And the majority of those were manufactured by BIC.

While other inventors and entrepreneurs had paved the way for this revolution, Baron Michel Bich, founder of BIC Pens, deserves full credit for firmly embedding the ballpoint into the fabric of everyday life through mass production and aggressive marketing.

BIC was the first inexpensive ballpoint that wrote smoothly and didn't leak or jam. Introduced in Europe in 1953, five years later BIC entered and quickly dominated the U.S. pen market.

In September 2005, BIC announced that it had sold its 100 billionth disposable ballpoint pen.

Lynne Friedmann is a freelance science writer who resides in Solana Beach. She is the author of a forthcoming book on the history and science of ink.