If any one product were to sell at the incredible rate of 57 units per second over the course of a year, it would have to be considered one of the most commercially successful consumer products of all time. That consistent level of high sales may seem impossible, but that was exactly the rate at which ballpoint pens were sold around the world during 2006. The ballpoint pen is so readily available and cheap that it’s impossible not to take for granted that at one time, jotting down a quick note used to be a much more complex process than whipping a pen out of your pocket and maybe fumbling with the cap for a moment or two. At worst, the pen’s ink might have run out, but for most consumers a replacement or twenty is within close reach.
Today, we return to our Evolution of Technology series to profile the development of a writing utensil, which most of our readers are likely carrying on them as they peruse this column. The ballpoint pen as we know it has changed slightly over the years, but most of the significant developments involving the ballpoint pen can be traced to Hungarian inventor László Jozsef Bíró, a 2007 inductee into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. There are some fascinating aspects to the story of the ballpoint pen: it enabled the escape of its inventor from Nazi Germany and has an interesting marketing history in the United States. Below, we explore the development history of this simple yet incredibly practical writing tool and profile some of the important patents issued to pen innovators along the way.
Pen Developments in the Days Before Ballpoint
Bíró was not the first inventor to conceive the use of a rolling ball in socket mechanism for an ink writing utensil. By the latter part of the 19th century, a few designs for this type of utensil would be developed and even patent-protected by their inventors. Although none of these became truly commercially successful, they’re all important stepping stones towards what would eventually become one of the most purchased and utilized products ever created.
Before the ballpoint pen came into fashion, the fountain pen was used to draw ink from an internal reservoir so that a person could write or draw on a piece of paper or another surface. In the late 1870s, an inventor from Rhode Island was putting the finishing touches on a stylographic fountain pen, a type of pen which utilized a wire to act as a valve in applying ink to paper. In October 1880 that inventor, Alonzo T. Cross, was issued U.S. Patent No. 232804, issued under the title Stylographic Pen. This innovation provided a screw-plug to prevent users from filling ink into an air tube included in the pen’s housing and used the motion of air bubbles moving from the air tube into the ink chamber to force ink through to the point of the pen.
Another fountain pen innovation from the period was found in U.S. Patent No. 293545, simply titled Fountain Pen. Issued to Lewis E. Waterman of Brooklyn, NY, the patent claims an ink-duct for a fountain pen consisting of a bar with a longitudinal groove which is accompanied by a series of longitudinal fissures. An increased air influx provided by the groove is intended to prevent ink from flowing excessively when a pen is in motion.
Ballpoint pens were constructed decades before Bíró created his writing utensil. We found multiple sources crediting American John Loud with the creation of a ballpoint writing apparatus for marking leather as perhaps the first ballpoint pen. Loud’s design can be explored in U.S. Patent No. 392046, entitled Pen. The patent issued to the inventor, who was based in Weymouth, MA, claims a pen with a spheroidal marking point capable of revolving in all directions for applying ink to rough surfaces, including wool and coarse wrapping paper. Other inventors are also discussed in the history of the ballpoint pen’s evolution, but even those that were patented were unable to reach mass commercial appeal.
László Jozsef Bíró and the Modern Ballpoint Pen
It should be noted that Bíró, a man whose name has become synonymous with his invention in certain parts of the world, never profited much from his invention either, although it would benefit him and his family in a time of great need. The larger context of world turmoil in the late 1930s provides an interesting backdrop for the story of a Jewish man from Hungary who would create a tool that helped British Royal Air Force pilots turn the tide of World War II.
In his life, Bíró had many talents and studied medicine and art before entering a professional career as the editor of a newspaper with a fairly small circulation. When taking notes as a journalist, Bíró was forced to use fountain pens which had a number of shortcomings, especially smudging, which could render a passage of text unreadable. However, Bíró noted that the newspapers printed by his publisher didn’t have the same problem; the ink dried and set much faster when using these presses.
The inventor’s first idea was to apply the ink used to published newsprint to a fountain pen for writing. The issue arose that the newspaper print ink was very thick and viscous, making it difficult to flow evenly through the pen’s tip. To conceive the next great innovation in personal writing utensils, László would enlist the help of his brother Georg, a chemist. The tool they developed was comprised of a pen with a metal ball bearing at the tip, which applied the ink onto paper and other surfaces. On December 11th, 1945, Bíró was issued U.S. Patent No. 2390636, which is titled Writing Instrument, to protect his innovation. It claims a writing instrument with a reservoir for charging dense ink as well as an air intake and a free ball tip. This invention did away with the problem of ink evaporation which requires frequent refilling of the ink chamber.
It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that the invention of the ballpoint pen likely saved the lives of Bíró and his family. During a vacation one summer after having created the first pen, Bíró met Augustín Pedro Justo, a fellow vacationer who happened to be the president of Argentina at the time. Justo was so taken by Bíró’s innovation that he urged him to consider building and commercializing his invention in Argentina. When anti-Jewish laws went into effect in Hungary in 1938, Bíró fled to Paris and eventually wound up in Argentina with his brother and other members of his family.
Bíró would successfully apply for patents protecting his ballpoint pen in Argentina, Budapest and Switzerland along with the United States, and his product was first commercially marketed in 1944. Commercially, however, Bíró’s design would not reach mass appeal. This first ballpoint pen relied on gravity to draw ink towards the tip, requiring the user to hold the pen perfectly upright in order to write. Again with the help of his brother George, László was able to develop a pen which used capillary action to draw the ink towards the tip. A rough ball in the tip sponged up the ink and applied it evenly to a surface without the use of gravity.
Although not a huge commercial success, Bíró’s innovation would attract the attentions of some of the major powers of World War II. A British clerk familiar with the ballpoint pen suggested that airplane navigators, who often have to make marks on maps while flying high above the ground, would benefit from the use of this improved pen; high altitudes reduced the effectiveness of fountain pens as more pressure was needed to apply ink to the paper. The British Royal Air Force would order the first bulk supply of 30,000 of Bíró’s pens and the success of British fighter planes in the war, along with the ease of map marking offered by the ballpoint pen, got plenty of others interested in developing their own ballpoint pen designs.
The Ballpoint Pen Permeates Daily Life
The writing utensil developed by the Bírós still had plenty of shortcomings. Consumers in markets worldwide who took to the device were mainly discouraged by the pen’s ability to leak and ruin clothing, although an inability to write smoothly and consistently was another source of consternation. This is a major reason why the Eversharp Company, which bought the rights to commercially manufacture Bíró’s invention in the United States, encountered too many issues to enter mass production.
A bit of intellectual property thievery would establish the next round of innovation in ballpoint writing utensils. In 1945 Milton Reynolds, an American businessman from Chicago, visited Argentina on a trip and bought some of Bíró’s pens. In the face of the patent rights held by Eversharp, Reynolds was able to copy most of Bíró’s design and licensed the Reynold’s Rocket for sale through Gimbels, a renowned department store in New York City. In October 1945, Gimbel’s unveiled the Reynold’s Rocket and sold thousands of them within days at what seem to be exorbitant prices for a pen today; multiple sources claim original retail prices ranging from $9.75 to $12.50. Design issues surrounding leaking inks continued and the price of the item quickly dropped to a small fraction of its original price, some sources stating as low as 19 cents.
After Reynolds, the next major names in the development of ballpoint pens are Patrick J. Frawley, Jr. and Fran Seech. Seech was an unemployed chemist but had been working for a ballpoint pen company to develop improved ink compositions. Frawley paid Seech for the ink formula he had developed at that time and founded the Frawley Pen Company in 1949. Along with Seech’s innovations, Frawley’s business knowledge and audacity enabled the company to change popular perceptions of leaky, messy ballpoint pens rather quickly. In particular, Frawley was able to change minds with his Project Normandy campaign. In this campaign, salespeople were trained to barge into the offices of store buyers and even executives and scribble on their shirts with Frawley’s pens. Immediately angered, the buyers and executives were told by the Frawley sales team that if the pen’s ink didn’t wash out, Frawley would replace the shirt with an even more expensive one. When the shirts inevitably came back clean after they were washed, overcoming one of the expensive shortcomings of previous ballpoint pens, retail buyers started stocking Frawley’s pens. We did find a patent for a pen assigned to the Frawley Corporation, U.S. Patent No. 2734484, entitled Ball Point Pen. Invented by John F. O’Sullivan, the ball point writing mechanism claimed by the patent included a tabular writing cartridge with an ink reservoir, the cartridge being loosely for sliding movement from an enclosed carrying position to an exposed writing position. This system for retracting the ball point into the housing of the pen was designed to enable users to cleanly transport the pen while eliminating the need for a pen cap, which can get lost.
Perhaps the most famous iteration of the ballpoint pen, and the one that is still sold today by the millions, is the utensil developed by Marcel Bich, who would eventually found the BIC Corporation to market his version. It was Bich who realized that improvements in quality could be achieved while also achieving mass production of the pen so that pens could be sold at a much lower price. Bich actually licensed the technology developed by the brothers Bíró and began selling the BIC version in the early 1950s. Even though leaks still occur and exploding ink cartridges still ruin a pants pocket here and there, this is the version which has reached ubiquity in our world. Bich was able to successfully petition the USPTO for a couple of design patents, such as U.S. Patent No. D204527, also titled Ball Point Pen.