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Ballpoint pen

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Title: Ballpoint pen  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Fountain pen, List of pen types, brands and companies, Ballpoint pen artwork, Ballpoint pen knife, Quill
Collection: 1938 Introductions, Argentine Culture, Hungarian Culture, Hungarian Inventions, Pens
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Ballpoint pen

Ballpoint pen
Parts of a retractable ballpoint pen
A retractable ballpoint pen assemblage.
Invented by
Launch year 1888
Company Multiple brands
Availability Worldwide mass-production
Ubiquitous writing instrument

A ballpoint pen, also known as a "biro"[1] and "ball pen", is a pen that dispenses ink over a metal ball at its point, i.e. over a "ball point". The metal commonly used is steel, brass, or tungsten carbide.[2] It was conceived and developed as a cleaner and more reliable alternative to quill and fountain pens, and it is now the world's most-used writing instrument:[3] millions are manufactured and sold daily.[4] As a result, it has influenced art and graphic design and spawned an artwork genre.

Pen manufacturers produce designer ballpoint pens for the high-end and collectors' markets.

The Bic Cristal is a popular disposable type of ballpoint pen whose design is recognised by its place in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.[5]


  • History 1
    • Origins 1.1
    • Postwar proliferation 1.2
  • Types of ballpoint pens 2
  • As art medium 3
  • Manufacturing 4
    • Standards 4.1
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


Tip of a ballpoint pen highly magnified


At left, an authentic Birome made in Argentina by Bíró & Meyne. At right, Birome advertisement in Argentine magazine Leoplán, 1945.

The concept of using a ball point within a writing instrument as a method of applying ink to paper has existed since the late 19th century. In these inventions, the ink was placed in a thin tube whose end was blocked by a tiny ball, held so that it could not slip into the tube or fall out of the pen. The ink clung to the ball, which spun as the pen was drawn across the paper, therefore giving areas of the ball with its ink removed another coating.

The first patent for a ballpoint pen[6] was issued on 30 October 1888, to John J. Loud,[7] who was attempting to make a writing instrument that would be able to write "on rough surfaces-such as wood, coarse wrapping-paper, and other articles"[8] which then-common fountain pens could not. Loud's pen had a small rotating steel ball, held in place by a socket. Although it could be used to mark rough surfaces such as leather, as Loud intended, it proved to be too coarse for letter-writing. With no commercial viability, its potential went unexploited[1] and the patent eventually lapsed.[9] The manufacture of economical, reliable ballpoint pens as we know them arose from experimentation, modern chemistry, and precision manufacturing capabilities of the early 20th century.[3] Patents filed worldwide during early development are testaments to failed attempts at making the pens commercially viable and widely available.[10] Early ballpoints did not deliver the ink evenly; overflow and clogging were among the obstacles inventors faced toward developing reliable ballpoint pens.[4] If the ball socket were too tight, or the ink too thick, it would not reach the paper. If the socket were too loose, or the ink too thin, the pen would leak or the ink would smear.[4] Ink reservoirs pressurized by piston, spring, capillary action, and gravity would all serve as solutions to ink-delivery and flow problems.[11][12]

László Bíró, a Hungarian newspaper editor frustrated by the amount of time that he wasted filling up fountain pens and cleaning up smudged pages, noticed that inks used in newspaper printing dried quickly, leaving the paper dry and smudge free. He decided to create a pen using the same type of ink.[4] Bíró enlisted the help of his brother György, a chemist,[4] to develop viscous ink formulas for new ballpoint designs.[3]

Bíró's innovation successfully coupled ink-viscosity with a ball-socket mechanism which act compatibly to prevent ink from drying inside the reservoir while allowing controlled flow.[4] Bíró filed a British patent on 15 June 1938.[1][13]

In 1941, the Bíró brothers and a friend, Juan Jorge Meyne, fled Germany and moved to Argentina, where they formed Bíró Pens of Argentina and filed a new patent in 1943.[1] Their pen was sold in Argentina as the Birome (portmanteau of the names Bíró and Meyne), which is how ballpoint pens are still known in that country.[1] This new design was licensed by the British, who produced ballpoint pens for RAF aircrew as the Biro. Ballpoint pens were found to be more versatile than fountain pens, especially at high altitudes, where fountain pens were prone to ink-leakage.[4]

Postwar proliferation

Following World War II, many companies vied to commercially produce their own ballpoint pen design. In post-war Argentina, success of the Birome ballpoint was limited, but in mid-1945, the Eversharp Co., a maker of mechanical pencils, teamed up with Eberhard Faber Co. to license the rights from Birome for sales in the United States.[1][9]

During the same period, American entrepreneur Milton Reynolds came across a Birome ballpoint pen during a business trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina.[1][9] Recognizing commercial potential, he purchased several ballpoint samples, returned to the United States, and founded Reynolds International Pen Company. Reynolds bypassed the Birome patent with sufficient design alterations to obtain an American patent, beating Eversharp and other competitors to introduce the pen to the U.S. market.[1][9] Debuting at Gimbels department store in New York City on 29 October 1945,[9] for US$9.75 each, Reynolds Rocket became the first commercially successful ballpoint pen.[1][4][14] Reynolds went to great extremes to market the pen, with great success; Gimbel's sold many thousands of pens within one week. In Britain, the Miles Martin pen company was producing the first commercially successful ballpoint pens there by the end of 1945.[1]

Neither Reynolds' nor Eversharp's ballpoint lived up to consumer expectations in America. Ballpoint pen sales peaked in 1946, and consumer interest subsequently plunged due to market-saturation.[9] By the early 1950s the ballpoint boom had subsided and Reynolds' company folded.[1]

Paper Mate pens, among the emerging ballpoint brands of the 1950s, bought the rights to distribute their own ballpoint pens in Canada.[15] Facing concerns about ink-reliability, Paper Mate would pioneer new ink formulas and advertise them as "banker-approved".[9] In 1954, Parker Pens released The Jotter—that company's first ballpoint—boasting additional features and technological advances which would also include the use of tungsten-carbide textured ball-bearings in their pens.[1] In less than a year, Parker sold several million pens at prices between three and nine dollars.[1] In the 1960s, the failing Eversharp Co. sold its pen division to Parker and ultimately folded.[1]

Marcel Bich also introduced a ballpoint pen to the American marketplace in the 1950s, licensed from Bíró and based on the Argentine designs.[3][16] Bich shortened his name to Bic in 1953, becoming the ballpoint brand now recognised globally.[4] Bic pens struggled until the company launched its "Writes The First Time, Every Time!" advertising campaign in the 1960s.[4] Competition during this era forced unit prices to drop considerably.[4]

Types of ballpoint pens

Bic Cristal ballpoint pens shown in four basic ink colours.

Ballpoint pens are produced in both disposable and refillable models. Refills allow for the entire internal ink reservoir, including a ballpoint and socket, to be replaced. Such characteristics are usually associated with designer-type pens or those constructed of finer materials. The simplest types of ballpoint pens are disposable and have a cap to cover the tip when the pen is not in use, or a mechanism for retracting the tip,[3] which varies between manufacturers but is usually a spring- or screw-mechanism.

Rollerball pens employ the same ballpoint mechanics, but with the use of water-based inks instead of oil-based inks. Compared to oil-based ballpoints, rollerball pens are said to provide more fluid ink-flow, but the water-based inks will blot if held stationary against the writing surface. Water-based inks also remain wet longer when freshly applied and are thus prone to smearing—posing problems to left-handed people (or right handed people writing right-to-left script)—and running, should the writing surface become wet.

Because of a ballpoint pen's reliance on gravity to coat the ball with ink, most cannot be used to write upside-down. However, technology developed by Fisher pens in the United States resulted in the production of what came to be known as the "Fisher Space Pen". Space Pens combine a more viscous ink with a pressurised ink reservoir[4] which forces the ink toward the point. Unlike standard ballpoints, the rear end of a Space Pen's pressurized reservoir is sealed, eliminating evaporation and leakage,[4] thus allowing the pen to write upside-down, in zero-gravity environments, and reportedly underwater.[17] Astronauts have made use of these pens in outer space.[4]

Ballpoint pens with "erasable ink" were pioneered by the Paper Mate pen company.[18] The ink formulas of erasable ballpoints have properties similar to rubber cement, allowing the ink to be literally rubbed clean from the writing surface before drying and eventually becoming permanent.[18] Erasable ink is much thicker than standard ballpoint inks, requiring pressurised cartridges to facilitate inkflow—meaning they can also write upside-down. Though these pens are equipped with erasers, any eraser will suffice.[18]

The inexpensive, disposable Bic Cristal (also simply Bic pen or Biro) is reportedly the most widely sold pen in the world.[16][19] It was the Bic company's first product and is still synonymous with the company name.[20][21] The Bic Cristal is part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, acknowledged for its industrial design.[5][19] Its hexagonal barrel mimics that of a wooden pencil and is transparent, showing the ink level in the reservoir. The pen's streamlined cap has a small hole to prevent suffocation if children suck it into the throat.[16][22]

Ballpoint pens are sometimes provided free by businesses, such as hotels, as a form of advertising—printed with a company's name; a ballpoint pen is a relatively low cost advertisement that is highly effective (customers will use, and therefore see, a pen daily). Businesses and charities include ballpoint pens in direct mail campaigns to increase a customer's interest in the mailing. Ballpoints have also been produced to commemorate events, such as a pen commemorating the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.[3]

As art medium

Example of a ballpoint pen work-in-progress by artist James Mylne.

Ballpoint pens have proven to be a versatile art medium for professional artists as well as amateur doodlers.[23] Low cost, availability, and portability are cited by practitioners as qualities which make this common writing tool a convenient, alternative art supply.[24] Some artists use them within mixed-media works, while others use them solely as their medium-of-choice.[25]

Effects not generally associated with ballpoint pens can be achieved.[26] Traditional pen-and-ink techniques such as stippling and cross-hatching can be used to create half-tones[27] or the illusion of form and volume.[28] For artists whose interests necessitate precision line-work, ballpoints are an obvious attraction; ballpoint pens allow for sharp lines not as effectively executed using a brush.[29] Finely applied, the resulting imagery has been mistaken for airbrushed artwork[30] and photography,[31] causing reactions of disbelief which ballpoint artist Lennie Mace refers to as the Wow Factor.[29][30]

Famous 20th-Century artists such as Andy Warhol, among others, have utilised ballpoint pens to some extent during their careers.[32] Ballpoint pen artwork continues to attract interest in the 21st Century, with contemporary artists gaining recognition for their specific use of ballpoint pens; for their technical proficiency, imagination, and innovation. Korean-American artist Il Lee has been creating large-scale, ballpoint-only abstract artwork since the late 1970s.[23] Since the 1980s, Lennie Mace creates imaginative, ballpoint-only artwork of varying content and complexity, applied to unconventional surfaces including wood and denim.[33] The artist coined terms such as PENtings and Media Graffiti to describe his varied output.[29] More recently, British artist James Mylne has been creating photo-realistic artwork using mostly black ballpoints, sometimes with minimal mixed-media color.[31] In the mid-2000s (decade), Juan Francisco Casas generated Internet attention for a series of large-scale, photo-realistic ballpoint duplications of his own snapshots of friends, utilising only blue pens.[34]

Ballpoint "PENting" by Lennie Mace, Uchuu Neko Parade (2005) ballpoint pen and hardware on paper.

Using ballpoint pens to create artwork is not without limitations. Color availability and sensitivity of ink to light are among concerns of ballpoint pen artists.[35] Mistakes pose greater risks to ballpoint artists; once a line is drawn, it generally cannot be erased.[29] Additionally, "blobbing" of ink on the drawing surface and "skipping" of ink-flow require consideration when using ballpoint pens for artistic purposes.[25] Although the mechanics of ballpoint pens remain relatively unchanged, ink composition has evolved to solve certain problems over the years, resulting in unpredictable sensitivity to light and some extent of fading.[35]


The ink holder of the ballpoint pen.

Although designs and construction vary between brands, basic components of all ballpoint pens are universal.[3] Standard components include the freely rotating ball point itself (distributing the ink), a socket holding the ball in place, and a self-contained ink reservoir supplying ink to the ball.[4] In modern pens, narrow plastic tubes contain the ink, which is compelled downward to the ball by gravity.[4] Brass, steel, or tungsten carbide are used to manufacture the ball bearing-like points,[4] then housed in a brass socket.[36]

The function of these components can be compared with the ball-applicator of roll-on antiperspirant; the same technology at a larger scale. The ball point delivers the ink to the writing surface while acting as a buffer between the ink in the reservoir and the air outside, preventing the quick-drying ink from drying inside the reservoir. Modern ballpoints are said to have a two-year shelf life, on average.[4]

The common ballpoint pen is a product of mass production, with components produced separately on assembly-lines.[36] Basic steps in the manufacturing process include production of ink formulas, moulding of metal and plastic components, and assembly.[3] Marcel Bich was involved in developing the production of inexpensive ballpoint pens.[4]


The International Organization for Standardization has published standards for ball point and roller ball pens:

ISO 12756
1998: Drawing and writing instruments – Ball point pens – Vocabulary[37]
ISO 12757-1
1998: Ball point pens and refills – Part 1: General use[38]
ISO 12757-2
1998: Ball point pens and refills – Part 2: Documentary use (DOC)[39]
ISO 14145-1
1998: Roller ball pens and refills – Part 1: General use[40]
ISO 14145-2
1998: Roller ball pens and refills – Part 2: Documentary use (DOC)[41]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s
  5. ^ a b Bic Cristal in MoMA collection
  6. ^ Collingridge, M. R. et al. (2007) "Ink Reservoir Writing Instruments 1905–20" Transactions of the Newcomen Society 77(1): pp. 69–100, page 69
  7. ^ Great Britain Patent No. 15630, 30 October 2008
  8. ^
  9. ^ a b c d e f g
  10. ^
  11. ^ Collingridge, M. R. et al. (2007) "Ink Reservoir Writing Instruments 1905–20" Transactions of the Newcomen Society 77(1): pp. 69–100, page 80
  12. ^
  13. ^ The first complete specifications appear to be UK 498997, June 1938 and UK 512218, December 1938; his rather basic Hungarian patent 120037 was dated April 1938. Collingridge, M. R. et al. (2007) "Ink Reservoir Writing Instruments 1905–20" Transactions of the Newcomen Society 77(1): pp. 69–100, page 80
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^ a b c Phaidon Design Classics- Volume 2, 2006 Phaidon Press Ltd. ISBN 0-7148-4399-7
  17. ^
  18. ^ a b c
  19. ^ a b Humble MasterpiecesThe Museum of Modern Art New York, 8 April – 27 September 2004.
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^ FAQ – BIC World
  23. ^ a b
  24. ^
  25. ^ a b
  26. ^
  27. ^
  28. ^
  29. ^ a b c d
  30. ^ a b
  31. ^ a b
  32. ^
  33. ^
  34. ^
  35. ^ a b
  36. ^ a b
  37. ^
  38. ^
  39. ^
  40. ^
  41. ^

External links

  • A history of the ballpoint pen.
  • Did Biros really revolutionise writing?BBC News – 24 October 2006
  • Laszlo Biro on's list of famous Hungarians
  • online journal covering ballpoint pen artworkThe Ballpointer
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