Origins of ordinary things: Ballpoint pen

As its name says, a ballpoint pen has a ball at its point which rotates when dragged across the writing surface and leaves behind ink that comes from the reservoir of the pen. Ball at the point can be of different diameter and can be made of brass, steel, or tungsten carbide. It is today the most widespread writing instrument.

Trying to invent a pen which can write on leather, according to History of Pencils, John J. Loud invented the first ballpoint pen and patented it in 1888 in America. This pen had a small steel ball which was placed so it could not fall out nor fall in but it still could rotate freely. This invention was not commercially viable and could not be used for writing and because of that, lapsed in time.

In the early 1930s, while working as a Hungarian journalist and artist, László Bíró noticed that newspaper ink dried much more quickly than that from a fountain pen. The stylistic writing of a fountain pen uses liquid ink, which needs to flow from the tip to the page. The quick-drying ink used by printing presses was too thick to drip. That is according to Smithsonian, a research platform.

Biro vowed to use a similar ink in a new type of writing instrument. To avoid clogging his pen up with thick ink, he proposed a tiny metal ball that rotated at the end of a tube of this quick drying ink.

In June 1943, Biro and his brother Georg, a chemist, made the first commercial models, Biro pens. Later, the British government bought the rights to the patented pens so that the pens could be used by Royal Air Force crews. In addition to being sturdier than conventional fountain pens, ballpoint pens wrote at high altitudes with reduced pressure different from conventional fountain pens that flooded at high altitudes. Their successful performance for the Royal Air Force brought the Biro pen into the limelight, and during World War II the ballpoint pen was widely used by the military because of its toughness and ability to survive the battle environment.

The basic design of the ballpoint pen persists to this day, but Bíró’s financial stake did not last nearly so long. In the years that followed, the inventor slowly lost shares in his company, according to Smithsonian.

In 1945, the first inexpensive ballpoint pens were manufactured when Frenchman Marcel Bich started manufacturing his pens according to Bíró’s design that lowered the unit cost dramatically.  He called the pens “BIC,” a shortened, easy-to-remember version of his name. His ballpoint pens are now recognised across the world.

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