Cheap, reliable, and portable; ballpoint pens today are used daily by millions worldwide. But that wasn’t always the case. Fountain pens dominated the marketplace until the aftermath of World War II.
The earliest US patent was granted to John J. Loud, an American leather tanner, in 1888. His patent improved the fountain pen’s ability to mark up leather before it was cut, whereas previously pencils were unable to do the job, fountain pens proved too messy. The distinct features of his patent were small rotating metal balls at the base of the pen held in place by a socket, similar to a roll-on deodorant stick.
While Loud’s patent did improve the fountain pen’s ability to mark on rough surfaces, it was too rough to use on paper, and didn’t address the ink leakage and smudges. The patent solved his particular problem while working with leather, but its use was limited, and the patent eventually lapsed.
Then in the late 1920s, Laszlo Jozsef Biro, a Hungarian newspaper editor whose own frustration with fountain pens led him along with his brother, Gyorgy, a dentist and chemist, to design a new writing instrument based on John J. Loud’s 1888 patent. The key to their success was a new, thicker ink which dried quickly and smaller metal balls at the pen tip. Their modern-day ballpoint pen premiered at the 1931 Budapest International Fair.
Its prospects were moved forward by a chance encounter while Laszlo Biro was on vacation, where it met with the approval of a fellow vacationer, Agustin Justo, the then Argentinian president. Justo invited the Biro brothers to set up a plant in his country. Initially, they declined. However, as Jews, the gathering clouds of the European war in 1939 made them reconsider Justo’s offer. In 1941, the Biros’ brother emigrated to Argentina. There, they and their friend, Juan Jorge Meyne, filed for a patent and started Biro Pens of Argentina. Birome was the name given to their pen, a combination of Biro and Meyne names. It debuted in 1943.
In Argentina, the trio met Henry Martin, an English accountant, who thought the pen would be of interest to the British Air Ministry. He knew that at high altitudes the ordinary nib-type fountain pen tended to leak due to pressure changes and was unsuitable for Royal Air Force air crews who had to make up their logs while in flight.
The British didn’t immediately take Martin’s suggestion. Eventually, though, 30,000 pens were manufactured in England by Miles Aircraft for the R.A.F (Royal Air Force). The ballpoint pen’s popularity didn’t spread to North America until 1945. Two companies spent $500,000 to license it for the US market, but they were beaten to the punch by a savvy American businessman, Milton Reynolds. While visiting Argentina, he bought some Biromes, returned to the US, immediately set up the Reynolds International Pen Company, then tweaked the Biro patent.
Within four months, he began selling them. He called it "Reynolds Rocket". It was heavily marketed with the promise that it would only need refilling every two years. It debuted in October, 1945 at Gimbels Department store in New York City. It was an immediate success. Priced at $12.50/ea ($199.66 in 2022 $$), Gimbels ordered 50,000 units and sold 30,000 by the end of the first week.
In the rush to market it, Reynolds gave priority to the promotional aspects of the pen and blatantly ignored flaws in
the pen functionality. Consumers soon became disenchanted with the ballpoint pen which didn’t live up to the hype. Many returned to fountain pens. In 1954, Parker Pens introduced its first ballpoint pen, the “Jotter”. It wrote five times longer than the “Rocket”, had multiple tip sizes, and large-capacity ink refills. It worked and the public embraced it. Parker sold 3.5 million Jotters at prices that ranged from $2.95/ea ($31.71 2022 $$) to $8.75/ea ($94.04 2022 $$) in less than a year.
Then along came Marcel Bich, an Italian-born French industrialist who created a new French company, Societe Bic. He dropped the “h” in his name and began selling pens called BICs in 1950, mass producing them at low cost. It was a revolutionary turn in the evolution of the ballpoint pen.
In 1958 Bich brought the pen to the American market. The Bic pen was soon selling at 29 cents ($2.89 2022 $$) with the slogan "writes the first time, every time!" The BIC pen ushered in the real beginning of the broad use of ballpoint by ordinary people in their daily lives. Its reach over time extended to other areas of life as individuals and organizations began to experiment. The ballpoint pen's portability allowed doodling and sketching to reach new heights and have been used by astronauts in outer space.
Ballpoint pens have even proven to be a versatile art medium for professionals known as “ballpoint pen artists”.
Explore the work of James Mylne https://www.jamesmylne.co.uk/, Il Lee https://artprojects.com/il-lee/il-lee-ballpoint-pen-on-paper/and Jonathan Brechignac https://bit.ly/3LQZ9fO in this genre.
The Museum of Modern Art recognized the Bic Cristal's industrial design by introducing it into the museum's permanent collection https://www.moma.org/collection/works/82141
Ballpoint pens have also made their way to the halls of power in Washington, DC. Presidents sign legislation with pens, and each
has had his own favorite brand. President Kennedy preferred a Parker pen; more recent presidents: Bush, Obama, and Biden have favored Cross pens; and Trump used a Sharpie permanent marker.
I’m sure you have your own favorite. My current pen of choice is a CVS Caliber Retractable Ball Pen 1.0 mm tip (medium tip), black ink. A four pack costs $5.49 or $1.37 each.
Schneider, Stuart, and George Fischler. Illustrated guide to antique writing instruments. 3rd ed.,
Atglen, PA, Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 2000.
Gostony, Henry, and Stuart Schneider. The incredible ballpoint pen : a comprehensive history & price guide.
Atglen, PA, Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 1998.
Rota, Matt. The art of the ball point: experimentation, exploration, and techniquest in ink.
Beverly, MA, Rockport Publishing, 2016.
Brown, Sunni. The doodle revolution: unlock the power to think differently. New York, Portfolio / Penguin, 2014.
Websites and Blog Posts:
Rebecca, Maksel. "If you like ballpoint pens, thank the R.A.F. ." , Smithsonian : Air & Space Magazine , 10 June 2015, www.smithsonianmag.com/air-space-magazine/ballpoint-pens-RAF-180955537/. Accessed 26 May 2022.
Dowling, Stephen. "The cheap pen that changed writing forever ." , 29 Oct. 2020, www.bbc.com/future/article/20201028-history-of-the-ballpoint-pen. Accessed 26 May 2022.
O, Catherine. "The inventor behind the modern ballpoint pen." , Undated , www.pens.com/blog/the-inventor-behind-the-modern-ballpoint-pen/.
Société Bic / BIC Corporate US