The History Of The Ball Point Pen

The history of the ball point pen mirrors the stormy times into which it was born. Its development was marked by greed and dirty tricks.

Quill pens were the writing instruments of choice for centuries, used by the Lord of the Manor. The Lord owned serfs, and the serfs owned hens, a prolific, and self-replacing source of quills. With the Industrial Revolution, an increasingly sophisticated technology produced better writing utensils, such as the fountain pen. This elegant writing instrument reigned supreme from 1884 to 1945, made a comeback in the early 1950s, and is still used to an extent today. It's successor, the ball-point pen, has an interesting history, mirroring the stormy times into which it was born. It turned many a schoolboy's mouth blue, and destroyed the handwriting of generations of ordinary people.

To most of the world, Biro is still the generic name for the ball-point pen. Like the Hoover, the Biro is named after its creator, a Hungarian born journalist, Bmrs Laszls Jszsef. Biro was a man of many accomplishments, painter, writer, sculptor, medical student, hypnotist and inventor. He invented a reliable automatic gearbox that he sold to the Ford Motor Company. For commercial reasons, Ford buried the idea. Laszlo and his brother George patented the Biro pen in 1938. In 1940, as war engulfed Europe, the Biro brothers emigrated to Argentina, where a fresh patent was applied for in 1943.

The Biro contained a tiny ball-bearing in its tip, and this rotated, picking up ink and applying it to the paper. A patent for a similar product was taken out in 1888 by John J. Loud, but it was never developed commercially and had faded into obscurity. The British Government bought licensing rights for the pen for the RAF. Pilots had complained that fountain pens leaked at high altitudes, and the new pen, with its special thick ink, worked. The Biro was a success. Branded the "Eversharp CA" for Capillary Action, the pen sold successfully in Buenos Aires. Eversharp began preparations for an American invasion.

The product was selling well, helped by the fact that it required no refill for a year. The storms of World War II faded away, but the battle of the ball-points was about to begin. A Chicago businessman, Milton Reynolds entered the picture. Visiting Argentina, he was impressed with the new pen, and bought a few samples. Disregarding the Loud and Eversharp patents, he took the pen to the USA, ahead of the competition. Eversharp paid one million dollars for the Biro patent, but unfortunately the inventor had forgotten to register it in the US. Cynically riding on the back of Eversharp advance publicity, the Chicagoan introduced the ball-point for a hefty price, to the anxiously waiting public. With the help of Gimbals' Department store in New York City, Reynolds made millions. Eversharp's protests went unheeded. A feeding frenzy erupted, as dozens of companies rushed to market with outrageous claims and shoddy, leaky, and generally unreliable merchandise. Reynolds slipped away, pockets stuffed with money.

The bubble burst, and a disgusted, ink-stained public returned to the tried and true fountain pen. The invention was too good to disappear, however, and surviving companies began to produce better and cheaper ball-points. By 1950, Paper-mate was making good, cheap ball-point pens, and in 1954, the Parker pen company, which had stood aloof from the fray, brought out a quality ball-point. In 1957, the badly wounded Eversharp sold its pen division to Parker, and Eversharp assets were finally liquidated in the 1960s.

The ball-point wars have now been won. The Biro now dominates the writing market, challenged only by improving felt-tipped pens. Parker, Schaeffer, and Waterman hold dominant places in upscale fountain pen and ball-point markets, while Bic and PaperMate have captured the throwaway slot. Laszlo Biro died in 1985, having donated his name to the English language.

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