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How Ballpoint Pens Work

History of the Ballpoint

Hungarian journalist Laszlo Biro was well aware of the problems with normal pens. Biro believed that the idea of a pen using a quick-drying ink instead of India ink came to him while visiting a newspaper. The newspaper's ink left the paper dry and smudge-free almost immediately. 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. The ball would have two functions:

  • It would act as a cap to keep the ink from drying.
  • It would let ink flow out of the pen at a controlled rate.

In June 1943, Biro and his brother Georg, a chemist, took out a new patent with the European Patent Office and 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 (conventional fountain pens 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.

In the United States, the first successful, commercially produced ballpoint pen to replace the then-common fountain pen was introduced by Milton Reynolds in 1945. It used a tiny ball that rolled heavy, gelatin-consistency ink onto the paper. The Reynolds Pen was a primitive writing instrument marketed as "The first pen to write underwater." Reynolds sold 10,000 of his pens when they were first introduced. These first publicly sold pens were very expensive ($10 each), primarily because of the new technology.

In 1945, the first inexpensive ballpoint pens were manufactured when Frenchman Marcel Bich developed the industrial process for making the pens that lowered the unit cost dramatically. In 1949, Bich introduced his pens in Europe. He called the pens "BIC," a shortened, easy-to-remember version of his name. Ten years later, BIC first sold its pens on the American market.

Consumers were reluctant to buy the BIC pens at first, as so many pens had been introduced in the U.S. market by other manufacturers. To counter this hesitancy, the BIC company created an exciting national television campaign to tell consumers that this ballpoint pen "Writes First Time, Every Time!," and sold it for only 29 cents. BIC also launched television ads that depicted its pens being fired from a rifle, strapped to an ice skate, and even mounted on a jackhammer. Within a year, competition forced prices down to less than 10 cents each. Today, the BIC company manufactures millions of ballpoint pens a day!

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