From The BBC:
On 29 October 1945, the New York City branch of Gimbels department store unveiled a new product. Billions upon billions would follow in its wake.
Gimbels was the first to sell a new kind of ink pen, the design of which had taken several decades to come to fruition. The pens, made by the Reynolds International Pen Company, promised an end to the messy mishaps users of fountain pens encountered – leaking ink, smudges and pooling ink blots.
The new ballpoint pens did away with this, using a special viscous ink which dried quickly and didn’t leave smudges. At the heart of it, the rolling ball in the nib – and gravity – ensured a constant, steady stream of ink that didn’t smear or leave solid pools of ink on the page.
The new ballpoint was clean and convenient. What it wasn’t was cheap.
The new Reynolds ballpoint cost $12.50 – convert that to 2020 money and it’s more than $180 (£138.50). Today, if you were buying your pens in bulk, from stack-‘em-high superstores, you could end up with more than 1,000 for the same price.
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The creation of the ballpoint pen is usually credited to a Hungarian-Argentinian inventor László Bíró, whose name inspired a catch-all term for modern ballpoints. But it is, in fact, a lot older.
An American, John J Loud, received the first patent for a ballpoint pen back in 1888. Loud, a lawyer and occasional inventor, wanted an ink pen which would be able to write on rougher materials such as wood and leather as well as paper. His masterstroke was the revolving steel ball, which was held in place by a socket. In his 1888 patent filing, he wrote:
“My invention consists of an improved reservoir or fountain pen, especially useful, among other purposes, for marking on rough surfaces-such as wood, coarse wrapping-paper, and other articles where an ordinary pen could not be used.”
Loud’s pen was indeed able to write on leather and wood, but it was too rough for paper. The device was deemed to have no commercial value and the patent eventually lapsed.
Various inventors tried to improve on Loud’s design in the coming decade, but none were able to take it into production until Bíró in the 1930s. A journalist in Hungary, Bíró used fountain pens daily and was very familiar with their drawbacks.
“He was used to the fountain pen which was very leaky and left ink on your hands and smudged and he was very frustrated by it,” says Gemma Curtin, a curator at London’s Design Museum.
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Simply adding fountain pen ink to a ballpoint pen was not the solution, however. The ink itself needed to be rethought.
László turned to his brother, Győrgy, a dentist who was also a talented chemist. László had realised the ink used in fountain pains was too slow to dry and needed something more like the ink used on newspapers. Győrgy came up with a viscous ink which spread easily but dried quickly. What’s more, the pen used far less ink than the spotting, dripping fountain pens.
“Other people had thought of it before, but it was down to him, working with his brother – who was a good chemist – and getting the texture of the ink right,” says Curtin. “It is very like printer’s ink, and it doesn’t smudge.”
The principle at the heart of the ballpoint pen mimics the action of a roll-on deodorant – gravity and the force applied smear the rolling ball with a continuous stream of ink as the ball rolls along the writing surface When the pen isn’t used, the ball sits tight against the end of the ink reservoir, preventing air entering and drying out the ink. Most often, ballpoint pens run out of ink long before they dry out.
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László received a patent for his new pen in Britain in 1938, but World War Two put paid to plans to market his new invention. As László and his brother were Jews, they decided to flee Europe in 1941, and emigrated to Argentina. There, László returned to his new invention, helped by a fellow escapee, Juan Jorge Meyne.
The first “birome”, as it became known in Argentina, was released in 1943, while war was still raging in Europe and the Pacific. The design piqued the interest of the Royal Air Force (RAF), who put in an order for 30,000: the pens were able to be used by aircrew at high altitude unlike fountain pens, which tended to leak because of the pressure changes. Otherwise, the original pen was little-known outside its South American home – the few original models current all for sale on online auctions all hail from Argentina.
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In 1945, two US companies – the Eversharp Co and Eberhard Faber Co – teamed up to licence the new pen for the US market, having spent half a million dollars ($7.2m or £5.6m in today’s money) to sew up the rights to North and Central America. But they were too slow on the draw. American businessman Milton Reynolds was visiting Buenos Aires and was impressed with the new pen – he bought several, and on return to America set up the Reynolds International Pen Company to market a new design.
Crucially, the Reynolds design had enough changes to sidestep László Bíró’s patent, and was the first to go on sale on October of that year. It was, almost instantly, a must-have accessory. As Time magazine reported, “thousands of people all but trampled one another last week to spend $12.50 each for a new fountain pen”, noting that the new pen only needed refilling once every two years. Gimbels had ordered 50,000 of the new pens and had sold 30,000 of them by the end of the first week. According to Time, Gimbels made more than $5.6m in sales ($81m or £62m in 2020) from the new pen in the first six months.
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The masterstroke which would change the ballpoint pen forever came not from the US but from France. Michel Bich was an Italian-born French industrialist who ran a company making ballpoint pens. “No one understood better than Marcel Bich that potent 20th-century alchemy of high volume/low cost,” ran his obituary in the UK’s Independent newspaper when he died in 1994. “To this formula he added the magic catalyst of disposability. He invented nothing, but understood the mass market almost perfectly.”
Bich realised the ballpoints so far had been premium products – an alternative designed to be regularly replaced could be a lot cheaper. Bich acquired a dormant factory near Paris and set about creating his new company, Societe Bic. An advertising executive had suggested the industrialists shorten his surname to create an instantly recognisable three-letter trademark. The company’s trademark logo, the Bic Boy, had a smooth featureless orb as a face – a reference to the metal ball in the point of the pen.
“The first ballpoint pens in the UK cost around 55 shillings (£82.50/$107.50 in 2020 prices),” says Curtin. “One of Bic’s biros only cost you a shilling. It combined functionality with affordability.”
The new pen had an equally dramatic effect on the act of writing itself, says David Sax, the Canadian journalist who wrote the book The Revenge of Analog. “The ballpoint pen was the equivalent of today’s smartphone. Before then, writing was a stationary act that had to be done in a certain environment, on a certain kind of desk, with all these other things to hand that allowed you to write.
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“What the ballpoint pen did was to make writing something that could happen anywhere. I’ve written in snow and rain, on the back of an ATV and in a boat at sea and in the middle of the night,” says Sax. Biros don’t drain batteries, they don’t require plugging in in the middle of nowhere, and even the tightest pocket can accommodate them. “It only fails if it runs out of ink,” Sax adds.
Link to the rest at The BBC