this article has been updated on 07/03/2023.
Welcome to the ultimate guide to the ballpoint pen! As a retailer of stationery including ballpoint pens, we think it is interesting to understand the rich history and evolution of this ubiquitous writing instrument.
In our ultimate guide, we’ll first explore the fascinating history of the ballpoint pen. Then we’ll discuss the anatomy of a ballpoint and how it actually works, and we’ll highlight how it has evolved over time to go from a forgotten patent to the most used writing instrument in the world.
Grab a cuppa and let’s dive in.
A Brief History of the Ballpoint Pen
When was the ballpoint pen invented?
The ballpoint pen has come along way since its invention by John J Loud in 1888, to become one of the most popular writing instruments in the world.
Who invented the ballpoint pen?
Contrary to popular belief, the first ballpoint pen was not invented by László Bíró; his story would come 40 years later. The very first ballpoint was invented by a man named John J. Loud on 30th October 1888, a leather tanner and occasional inventor, who was looking for a way to mark leather and wood, where Fountain pens were unable to. His design consisted of a small steel ball rotating inside a socket that could roll over the surface. In his patent he explained:
“My invention consists of an improved reservoir or fountain pen, especially useful, among other purposes, for marking on rough surfaces such as wood, coarse wrapping paper, and other articles where an ordinary pen could not be used.” - credit: John J. Loud, 1888 patent filing (patent image below)
His invention worked as intended, on leather and rough products; unfortunately it would not work on paper, and so he eventually let the patent lapse after seeing no commercial use for it.
Bíró, Bich and Reynolds
In the nearly 40 years that followed, there were many failed attempts at improving the design, as the numerous worldwide historical patents show. It turns out that there is a balance between the tightness of the ball in the socket and the viscosity of the ink in the reservoir. Too tight or too viscous and the ink would not flow, too loose or the ink too fluid and and the pen would leak or smudge just like the fountain pen.
It would take until the late 1930s until a Hungarian newspaper editor named László Bíró, annoyed by the failings of a fountain pen's smudging of ink, cleaning up and the time consuming refilling, noticed that newspaper ink dried quickly and wondered if it could be used in a pen. Fortuitously, his brother György was a dentist at the time and having a deep understanding of chemistry, thought there could be a solution in the ink-viscosity.
Together they discovered the correct ink-viscosity to use with the same ball-socket mechanism design that John J. Loud had originally patented. Their design solved a number of failings of the past: it prevented the ink from drying in the reservoir, it delivered ink evenly through the tip, and at the same time prevented too much ink from leaking and smudging the paper. On 15th June 1938 Bíró filed a British patent for his new design.
When world war II broke out Bíró, György and his friend Juan Jorge Meyne fled to Argentina from Germany and formed “Bíró Pens of Argentina” and under a new Argentinian patent, attempted to sell their pens there, however it was not terribly successful, as they were unable to obtain adequate funding from the local banks. One bank manager did however suggest talking to a man named Harry G. Martin an English accountant who worked in Argentina. Martin was impressed by the their 'biro' and sought to license the design in partnership with Frederick G. Miles of Miles Aircraft Ltd. They began to manufacture it in limited volumes for use in the RAF. Martin saw it as an improvement to using fountain pens, which had a tendency to leak at higher altitudes and proved troublesome during use in aircraft.
At the end of the war, they set up Miles Martin Pen Co. and began selling their version of the Biro in the UK in 1945 following the success of their initial design, and it became an instant best seller. So successful was their ballpoint pen that the factory could barely keep up with demand and by the end of the 1940s factory output was circa 550,000 per week.
After the war, Ballpoint pen use exploded into the mainstream thanks to a number of competing companies, including Reynolds Pen Co., Eversharp Co. and Eberhard Faber Co. in the US, who acquired the rights to sell the Biro in the United States. (Incidentally, they eventually became Faber-Castel)
At the same time, Milton Reynolds, an American business man, came across a ‘Birome’ (the Argentinian biro of László and his brother) during a trip to South America and realized the commercial opportunities of the pen in the US. He would go on to beat other competing companies like Eversharp, by sufficiently changing the design to allow a new American patent, and his company became the first to sell the Biro to the US market. The "Reynolds Rocket", as it was known, retailed in the famous Gimbels department store and sold incredibly well. With a hefty price tag of US$12.50 (or almost $200 today) it attracted a lot of attention.
Marcel Bich followed a similar path back in Europe, when in 1944 he and a friend bought a factory in Paris to manufacture pencil holders and cases. In 1946, he bought the original 1938 British patent from László Bíró and began to develop stainless steel balls for the tip to improve the design. In 1950, his first Ballpoint pen, the Bic Cristal was born. In 1953 he formed Société Bic company, but the Bic struggled to gain traction, until in the 1960s they launched an aggressive advertising campaign with the slogan "Writes The First Time, Every Time!". This slogan resonated with people looking for a more convenient writing instrument and their pen became a hit and eventually a worldwide best seller. ‘Bic’ is so synonymous with ballpoint pens that people worldwide use the company name interchangeably with ballpoint pen, much the same way they use 'Biro' to mean ballpoint pen aswell.
Fun Fact: So successful was that first Bic Cristal design, that it is almost unchanged today.
What is a ballpoint pen?
A ballpoint pen consists of several components that work together to create a functional writing instrument:
- Barrel: The barrel is the main body of the pen that houses the ink cartridge and the ballpoint.
- Cap: The cap covers the ballpoint and helps to prevent the ink from drying out.
- Clip: The clip is a small metal or plastic piece attached to the cap that allows the pen to be attached to a shirt pocket or notebook.
- Ink Cartridge: The ink cartridge is a small, cylindrical tube that holds the ink. It can be replaced when the ink runs out.
- Ballpoint nib: The ballpoint is a small metal sphere located at the tip of the pen that rolls over the paper as the pen is used. The ballpoint is responsible for dispensing the ink onto the paper.
- Tip: The tip of the pen is the business end of the pen, where the ballpoint nib protrudes from. It is made of hard material to protect the nib.
How does a Ballpoint Pen Work?
The ballpoint pen is actually very simple. It works by transferring ink from inside the reservoir to outside the reservoir via the rotating ball bearing tip. When the ballpoint moves across the paper, it rotates and picks up ink from the reservoir, which is then transferred to the paper. Think of a very small version of a roll on deodorant:
- Ink storage: The ink is stored inside an ink cartridge or refill that fits inside the pen's barrel. The ink is kept in a reservoir that is sealed with a small ball bearing to prevent the ink from drying out.
- Ink delivery: When the pen is used, the ball rolls over the page and the inside face of the ball picks up ink. As it continues to rotate, ink then coats the whole ballpoint and it is ready to be transferred onto the paper.
- Ballpoint transfer: As the pen continues to move across the paper, the ballpoint rotates and deposits the ink onto the paper as it rolls along.
Why is the Ballpoint Pen so Popular?
There are many reasons why ballpoints are so endeared across the world. One of the fundamental differences between ballpoint and other writing instruments are the types of ink. Ballpoint pens were specifically created to suit an oil-based ink that dries much faster than any other pen ink; they are also viscous enough to prevent leakage from the tip when not in use. These qualities mean a user can pick up a ballpoint and begin writing reliably with no fuss, mess or time consuming filling.
With other pens like fountain pens, you may need to carry spare nibs or additional ink bottles to ensure that you have enough for your writing at all times, however, when it comes to the ballpoint, the pens are designed with a longer life span and an easy refill feature.
Unlike other ink pens, when applying too much pressure while writing, because of its durable nature - a ballpoint pen will not easily break, and can be used safely on a variety of surfaces.
Ultimately, ballpoint pens provide a great, consistent writing experience with a sturdy, sophisticated and user-friendly design.
Biro, Bic & Ballpoint Differences:
The Biro, Bic and Ballpoint pens today are the same thing, no longer are they different versions of the initial patents and designs from John J Loud, László Bíró, Michel Bich and Milton Reynolds. We use the terms interchangeably when talking about ballpoint pens in general. The same way we use the verb ‘to google’ when searching for something online. I think Bíró and Bich would be pleased with this.
Limitations of Ballpoints:
While ballpoint pens are reliable and durable - perfect for everyday use, they are arguably not as sleek and smooth to use as a fountain or rollerball pen. They are workmanlike and efficient, but sometimes this is not what a user is looking for. Fountain pen users will always argue that there is no emotion or feeling when writing with a ballpoint pen. And even no fun compared with the Fountain pen. They will argue that ballpoint pens don’t offer the same elegant handwritten aesthetic as the fountain or rollerball pens.
To presume that the ballpoint is every users choice is a mistake; Fountain pens today are arguably going through their own renaissance period, with embellished designs, new nibs choices, fashion and a huge array of smaller companies intent on re-engaging people with the art of fountain pen use. You can read about the history of the fountain pen in another of our blogs here.
How to Refill a Ballpoint Pen:
One of the fundamental reasons why ballpoint pens are so popular and dependable is their re-usability - every ballpoint we sell can be refilled. Each ballpoint will have its own specific refill suiting its brand, ranging in size and colour. Many refills will have their own make and model numbers printed on the barrel, for example, every Parker Ballpoint pen uses the same Parker-style ballpoint refill cartridge. In fact, the Parker ballpoint refill is so well designed that it has become known as the standard international type refill, which many other companies use in their ballpoint pens.
Once you’ve purchased a suitable cartridge for your ballpoint, you’ll need to swap it with the old cartridge. Hold the pen up horizontally and twist its lower body until unscrewed, the old refill should reveal itself.
Some pens will have adapters that hold the refill in place, gently replace the old refill from the adapter with the new one. Other pens with the click to open mechanism will have a spring in the tip that will bounce out when the pen has been unscrewed. When swapping refills, place the spring back into its original position with the new refill affixed and screw or push the top part of the pen back into place. That’s it. See our video for a more detailed walkthrough.
Choosing the Right Ballpoint Pen:
While choosing a ballpoint pen may seem straight forward ("let’s just buy the cheapest disposable biro"), there is actually a lot more to it. Yes, a disposable is cheaper, but you get what you pay for, a cheap looking ballpoint that can break easily, has ink flow problems, and might not last the week. This might be ok if you just need an occasional helper, but if you write daily and want something that will last and is happy to be thrown in a pocket and bounced around all day, you may want to look for a refillable reuseable ballpoint pen.
Your next thoughts may be about colour, size, brand (and price again), because let’s face it; if you’re living with something long term, you’ll be happier if you like it. Our advice is to think about the pen size first because comfort in your hand is paramount over long writing periods. Next, think about the Brand, do you know the brand and have you had experience with a particular brand? No problem if not; always be willing to try a new pen brand, there are lots of smaller less well known brands that make better quality pens than the more well known pen names. After that, it is up to you on colour and the price you are willing to pay. If you need any help, just ask, we will happily help you find your perfect pen.
Some of the finest ballpoint pens are available on our website, including the impressive Fisher Space collection which can be utilised in a multitude of environments like zero gravity and underwater. Fisher Space pens are ballpoint pens taken to the extreme of engineering (but they’re for another blog on another day). Parker Ballpoints are also available. Plus, there are plenty of other gift sets that make ideal Christmas or birthday presents.
Below is a selection of our most cost effective, robust & popular ballpoint models:
First introduced in 1954, typically, when you think of a Parker pen you’ll most likely think of the iconic Parker Jotter. A practical yet affordable, stylish and fun ballpoint pen with a sleek, stainless steel design. They come in so many colours and Parker continue to bring out new variations of the Jotter. In the 1963 edition of Life magazine, Parker advertised that the Jotter could write up to 80,000 words. At the time this would have been quite a claim and probably helped them to become one of the largest Pen companies in the world. The Jotter is a split level pen, the bottom comes usually as plastic material while the top part is steel and fashions the arrow pocket clip. Parker likes to package most of their pens in a well presented gift box, and the Jotter is no exception, meaning it is a great giftable pen at a very reasonable price.. The Parker Jotter is suitable for all occasions, the ballpoint takes standard Parker ballpoint refills.
Redesigned and restyled in 2017, the Parker ‘Instant Message’ is a smart, polished, and classic Parker ballpoint with a modern twist. The pen is fairly weighty and thicker than the jotter so suits larger hands. Finished with attractive lacquers and lustrous metal trims, the Parker IM’s tip ensures smooth, neat writing while the ink is dependably quick-drying and consistent. The ballpoint takes standard Parker refills and writes in writes in blue Parker Ballpoint Quink ink.
A deep and sumptuous design with a graceful appeal, the Waterman Hemisphere is a must-have for any pen devotee. The ballpoint is a modern accessory that perfectly matches any time or place. Generally finished with rich lacquer over a metal barrel (although brushed steel versions are also very popular), its slim aesthetic showcases a sophisticated statement of personality and style. Across its body are metal trims with a bevelled end cap detailing. Complete with a luxury gift box and three years Waterman manufacturers warranty.
Looking for a special and thoughtful gift for the executive in your family? An engraved pen is an exquisite gift to give and receive. With such a rich history behind it the ballpoint pen is a great and useful gift that, with engraving, can be given an extra special personal touch. We can engrave names, places, dates or valuable short phrases on the pen’s barrel or cap.
Executive Pens Direct offers a beautiful range of luxurious ballpoint, fountain, rollerball and Parker pens, each varied in their size, colour, comfort, shape, and utility. If you’re looking for a more precise, timeless feel that improves your writing flow, we recommend our Parker ballpoint collection. If you’d like a more classic, iconic utensil that captures its era, we recommend our Kaweco Fountain Pens collection. If you’re interested in a comprehensive article on the differences between a biro and ballpoint pens, then check out ThoughtCo’s piece here.
I hope you have enjoyed this guide, and it has provided new insight into the world of the ballpoint pen. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below. If you notice we have missed something, let us know.