An Appreciation of Classic Ballpoint Pens

 By: Wayne Hemrick
You use it every day without giving it much thought. You make your grocery list with it, use it to write in your journal, make to do lists with it, and utilize it to take important notes at work. It is a ballpoint retractable pen, and life would not be quite the same without it.

A seemingly insignificant object, ballpoint pens actually represent one of the most important inventions in modern history. Prior to their existence, fountain pens (and quill pens before them) were not very portable or user friendly. They often leaked and had to be refilled frequently; that is, if they could be refilled at all. As reading and writing became more and more widespread throughout the late 19th century, the demand arose for a reliable, self-contained, refillable pen that would not smudge or leak. This demand was met by ballpoint pens.

Ball point pens originated in 1889 when a leather tanner named John Loud had a need for a writing tool that would work on leather, which traditional fountain pens would not. He created a pen with a rotating steel ball that was held in place with a socket. This predecessor to the modern ball pen was not suitable for commercial use, however, because it was far too coarse to write on paper.

The next major breakthrough in the design technology of classic ballpoint pens came from Laszlo Biro, a Hungarian newspaper editor. His profession required him to spend the majority of his time writing and editing large amounts of text on fine newsprint. He found fountain pens to smudge too easily and take up too much time with their continuous need for refilling. They also had a tendency to tear the fine paper with which he worked. With the help of his chemist brother, Biro developed an ink similar to that used in newspaper printing. This ink dried quickly and did not smudge as easily. He placed it into a pen with a rotating ball that would consistently rotate to pick up ink and place it on paper. Biro patented his ball pen in 1938.

Ballpoint pens went on sale to the public for the first time in 1945, offered at Gimbels department store in New York City. At a price of $12.50 each, they did not seem like a household item every person would use on a daily basis. That changed as soon as the Bic Corporation invented a cheaper, disposable version of ball point pens later that year. Today, just as all facial tissue is often referred to as Kleenex and all photocopies are often called Xerox, the name Bic has become synonymous with any ballpoint retractable pen, regardless of its brand.

Classic ballpoint pens are available in two versions: disposable and refillable. Disposable ballpoint pens are made of plastic and designed to be discarded when empty. Refillable ballpoint pens, on the other hand, can be made of plastic or metal and allow for near endless use. No matter which type you prefer, next time you pick up a ballpoint retractable pen, consider how much more difficult the simplest tasks would be without it.
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