What is a Ballpoint Pen?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A ballpoint pen is a type of writing implement invented in 1938 by Laszlo Biro. The ballpoint pen represented a significant improvement over fountain pens, which had a tendency to leak and could also fail at high altitudes. Biro's invention was widely used throughout the Second World War, and has come to be a common product in most households around the world, thanks to cheap manufacturing processes which make ballpoint pens readily affordable.

Fountain pens fell out of use with the invention of the ballpoint pen.
Fountain pens fell out of use with the invention of the ballpoint pen.

The ballpoint pen operates on a fairly simple principle. The ink for the pen is held inside a cartridge within the pen. At the tip of the pen, a ball bearing is seated inside a socket. The ball bearing picks up ink from the cartridge to write with while also acting as a seal to keep the ink from escaping. Ballpoint pens use a thick quick drying ink so that writers will not inadvertently smear their work, and the ball bearing also keeps the ink inside the cartridge moist so that it will not clog the pen.

Depending on how wide the ball bearing is, the subsequent line of ink will be thick or thin. Ballpoint pens come in a variety of widths ranging from standard to superfine, depending on the needs of the writer. Because of the controlled ink delivery system in a ballpoint pens, the line will remain consistent and the pen will also last for quite a long time, assuming that it is stored correctly.

Ballpoint pens were a revolutionary introduction to the writing world. Unlike fountain pens, they didn't spew ink all over the hands of the writer at random, and they were also very affordable. Many consumers appreciated the long lasting ink cartridge ballpoint pens are fitted with. Some manufacturers even make replacement ink cartridges, so that consumers can purchase a high end ballpoint pen and refresh the ink when it runs low.

The ballpoint pen is not without a sordid history: although Biro invented the pen and patented it in 1938, an American businessman named Milton Reynolds picked up the design and started marketing it in the United States. The ballpoint pen had not been patented there, so Reynolds was not technically in the wrong, although he did violate patent laws by attempting to sell the pen internationally. The Eversharp company, which owned the legitimate patent, sued Reynolds, and the battle captivated the public imagination. Unfortunately for both companies, their products were unreliable and the ballpoint pen began to be viewed as just a fad.

In the late 1940s, a French businessman named Bich improved the design, dropping the “H” from his name and selling Bic pens. By the late 1950s, Reynolds and Eversharp had folded, allowing Bic to dominate the ballpoint pen market. The low cost Bic pen is readily available all over the world, while more high end ballpoint pens continue to be manufactured by a variety of companies.

To handle a ballpoint pen properly, it is important to remember that the pen is gravity fed. Ballpoint pens write best when they are held perpendicular to the writing surface, with the tip facing towards the earth. Store a ballpoint pen tip up, so that the ink will not flow down the pen and clog it or begin to leak.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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