When it comes to refined ink delivery nothing beats the elegance and experience of writing with a fountain pen. But in terms of practical use, reliability and ingenious design, the top spot might have to go to the humble ballpoint pen.
The invention of the ballpoint pen is often credited to Hungarian-Argentinian inventor László Bíró who began producing the pens in the 1930s. However, American inventor John J Loud actually received the first patent for a ballpoint pen back in 1888. His version was deemed not to have a commercial value and floundered until the design was perfected by Bíró 50 years later.
The main principle at work in the ballpoint pen is the small metal ball in the pen tip. This acts in two ways: It allows the pen tip to glide over paper delivering a continuous flow of ink and (when not in use) it acts as a stopper to prevent leakages.
The last piece of the puzzle was the viscosity of the ink. Fortunately, László Bíró’s brother, Győrgy was a talented chemist and realised printers ink would deliver with ease and dry quickly on the paper. The ballpoint pen was born.
This invention happened at exactly the right time for mass production and mass appeal. Access to cheap metals and plastics coincided with the explosion in factory manufacturing meaning that mass-producing the biro was possible. By 1943, the second world war was driving innovation and need. The British RAF placed an order for 30,000 pens to solve the issues with altitude and air pressure that caused fountain pens to leak in cockpits.
A few years later, Gimbels department store in the US saw the potential in a rival ballpoint pen produced in the US and placed an order for 50,000 pens. It was marketed as “a fantastic, atomic era, miraculous pen” and America loved it.
The genius of the ballpoint pen lay in its durability and affordable value. In the 70s, 80s and 90s the ballpoint pen was ubiquitous and if you lost one you could just open a drawer and find another. School kids could throw pens into a satchel and dash off to their next class, impromptu business meetings could see notes written down on the back of a hand and no one needed to worry about ink pots or ink cartridges.
Canadian journalist and author David Sax, wrote “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.” In his book, The Revenge of Analog he explains that the ballpoint pen created a new kind of liberation and literacy that had not existed before.
Perhaps it’s this ubiquity that has led the ballpoint pen and its clever design to be overlooked. Ask anyone which they prefer, a cheap plastic bic ballpoint pen or a sleek metal Parker fountain pen and they will likely reach for the fountain pen. But sometimes it’s the simplest and cheapest designs that have the biggest impact on history.
By creating a writing implement at a low price point, John J Loud, László Bíró and all that followed impacted the literacy and writing levels for generations of children and adults. The humble ballpoint pen may not have the esteem of an Otto Hutt or a Montblanc but they might have been more impactful in changing the course of history.
Just something to think about next time you find a biro at the back of a drawer.