facts about the invention
of the Ballpoint Pen by Ladislas
Biro in 1935.
|The first great success for the ballpoint
pen came on an October morning in 1945 when a crowd of over 5,000 people jammed the
entrance of New Yorks Gimbels Department Store. The day before, Gimbels had taken
out a full-page ad in the New York Times promoting the first sale of ballpoints in the
United States. The ad described the new pen as a "fantastic... miraculous fountain
pen ... guaranteed to write for two years without refilling!" On that first day of
sales, Gimbels sold out its entire stock of 10,000 pens-at $12.50 each!
|Actually, this "new" pen wasn't
new at all and didn't work much better than ballpoint pens that had been produced ten
years earlier. The story begins in 1888 when John Loud, an American leather tanner,
patented a roller-ball-tip marking pen. Louds invention featured a reservoir of ink
and a roller ball that applied the thick ink to leather hides. John Louds pen was
never produced, nor were any of the other 350 patents for ball-type pens issued over the
next thirty years. The major problem was the ink - if the ink was thin the pens leaked,
and if it was too thick, they clogged. Depending on the temperature, the pen would
sometimes do both.
The next stage of development came almost fifty years
after Louds patent, with an improved version invented in Hungary in 1935 by Ladislas
Biro and his brother, Georg. Ladislas Biro was very talented and confident of his
abilities, but he had never had a pursuit that kept his interest and earned him a good
living. He had studied medicine, art, and hypnotism, and in 1935 he was editing a
small newspaper-where he was frustrated by the amount of time he wasted filling fountain
pens and cleaning up ink smudges. Besides that, the sharp tip of his fountain pen
often scratched or tore through the newsprint (paper). Determined to develop a better pen,
Ladislas and Georg (who was a chemist) set about making models of new designs and
formulating better inks to use in them.
One summer day while vacationing at the seashore, the Biro brothers met an
interesting elderly gentleman, Augustine Justo, who happened to be the president of
Argentina. After the brothers showed him their model of a ballpoint pen, President
Justo urged them to set up a factory in Argentina. When World War II broke out in
Europe, a few years later, the Biros fled to Argentina, stopping in Paris along the way to
patent their pen.
Once in Argentina, the Biros found several investors willing to finance their
invention, and in 1943 they had set up a manufacturing plant. Unfortunately, the
pens were a spectacular failure. The Biro pen, like the designs that had preceded it,
depended on gravity for the ink to flow to the roller ball. This meant that the pens
worked only when they were held more or less straight up, and even then the ink flow was
sometimes too heavy, leaving smudgy globs on the paper. The Biro brothers returned
to their laboratory and devised a new design, which relied on "capillsry action"
rather than gravity to feed the ink. The rough "ball" at the end of the
pen acted like a metal sponge, and with this improvement ink could flow more smoothly to
the ball, and the pen could be held at a slant rather than straight up. One year
later, the Biros were selling their new, improved ballpoint pen throughout Argentina. But
it still was not a smashing success, and the men ran out of money.
The greatest interest in the ballpoint pen came from American flyers who had
been to Argentina during World War II. Apparently it was ideal for pilots because it would
work well at high altitudes and, unlike fountain pens, did not have to be refilled
frequently. The U.S. Department of State sent specifications to several American pen
manufacturers asking them to develop a similar pen. In an attempt to corner the
market, the Eberhard Faber Company paid the Biro brothers $500,000 for the rights to
manufacture their ballpoint pen in the United States. Eberhard Faber later sold its rights
to the Eversharp Company, but neither was quick about putting a ballpoint pen on the
market. There were still too many bugs in the Biro design.
Meanwhile, in a surprise move, a fifty-four-year-old Chicago salesman named
Milton Reynolds became the first American manufacturer to market a ballpoint pen
successfully. While vacationing in Argentina, Reynolds had seen Biros pen in the
stores and thought that the novel product would sell well in America. Because many
of the patents had expired, Reynolds thought he could avoid any legal problems, and so he
went about copying much of the Biros design. It was Reynolds who made the deal
with Gimbels to be the first retail store in America to sell ballpoint pens. He set
up a makeshift factory with 300 workers who began stamping out pens from whatever aluminum
was not being used for the war. In the months that followed, Reynolds made millions
of pens and became fairly wealthy, as did many other manufacturers who decided to cash in
on the new interest.
The competition among pen manufacturers during the mid-1940s became quite
hectic, with each one claiming new and better features. Reynolds even claimed that his
ballpoint could write under water, and he hired Esther Williams, the swimmer and movie
star, to help prove it. Another manufacturer claimed that its pen would write through ten
carbon copies, while still another demonstrated that its pen would write up-side
down. However, the effect of the slogans and advertising wore off as soon as the
owners discovered the many problems that still existed with the ballpoint pens. As the
sale of the pens began to drop, so did the price, and the once expensive luxury now would
not even sell for as little as 19 cents. Once again, it looked as if the ballpoint
pen would be a complete failure. For the pen to regain the publics favor and
trust, somebody would have to invent one that was smooth writing, quick drying,
nonskipping, nonfading, and most important didnt leak.
Two men, each with his own pen company, delivered these results. The first
was Patrick J. Frawley Jr. Frawley met Fran Seech, an unemployed Los Angeles chemist
who had lost his job when the ballpoint pen company he was working for had gone out of
business. Seech had been working on improvements in ballpoint ink, and on his own he
continued his experiments in a tiny cubbyhole home laboratory. Frawley was so
impressed with his work that he bought Seechs new ink formula in 1949 and started
the Frawley Pen Company. Within one year, Frawley was in the ballpoint pen business
with yet another improved model-the first pen with a retractable ballpoint tip and the
first with no-smear ink. To overcome many of the old prejudices against the leaky
and smeary ballpoint pen of the past, Frawley initiated an imaginative and risky
advertising campaign, a promotion he called Project Normandy. Frawley instructed his
salesmen to barge into the offices of retail store buyers and scribble all over the
executives shirts with one of the new pens. Then the salesman would offer to
replace the shirt with an even more expensive one if the ink did not wash out entirely.
The shirts did come clean and the promotion worked. As more and more
retailers accepted the pen, which Frawley named the "Papermate," sales began to
skyrocket. Within a few years, the Papermate pen was selling in the hundreds of millions.
The other man to bring the ballpoint pen successfully back to life was Marcel
Bich, a French manufacturer of penholders and pen cases. Bich was appalled at the
poor quality of the ballpoint pens he had seen and he was also shocked at their high cost.
But he recognized that the ballpoint was a firmly established innovation and he resolved
to design a high-quality pen at a low price that would scoop the market. He went to
the Biro brothers and arranged to pay them a royalty on their patent. Then for two
years Marcel Bich studied the detailed construction of every ballpoint pen on the market,
often working with a microscope. By 1952 Bich was ready to introduce his new wonder:
a clear-barreled, smooth-writing, non-leaky, inexpensive ballpoint pen he called the
"Ballpoint Bic." The ballpoint pen had finally become a practical writing
instrument. The public accepted it without complaint, and today it is as standard a
writing implement as the pencil. In England, they are still called Biros, and many Bic
models also say "Biro" on the side of the pen, as a testament to their primary
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This web site has something for everyone - kids, parents and teachers.
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About Paper Mate
In 1949, the pen industry witnessed a major technological breakthrough. The Frawley Pen
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Past, present and future, Pentel offers superior quality, innovative products and the
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The Origins of
the Ball Point Pen
While on a business trip to Buenos Aires in 1945 Reynolds came upon an early ballpoint pen
invented by Ladislas Biro, a Hungarian journalist.
This site from one of the leading international manufacturers of high-quality writing,
drawing and coloring instruments as much to see and do.
László Bíró Biography
Everybody is familiar with the ballpoint pen. But how many of us know
the story behind this convenient writing implement or the name of its
ASME Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark
The ballpoint pen developed by Ladislas Biro in 1943, which served as
the design standard for the practical and low-priced writing instruments
that flooded the world market in later years, was named an ASME Historic
Mechanical Engineering Landmark at a ceremony held Sept. 29, 2005, in
Buenos Aires, Argentina
HOW IT WORKS:
Hungarian journalist Ladislas Biro, noticed the type of
ink used in newspaper printing presses dried quickly leaving the paper dry and smudge
free. He decided to create a pen using the same ink. The thicker ink would not flow
from a regular pen nib so Biro devised a new point by fitting his pen with a tiny ball
bearing at its tip. As the pen moved along the paper, the ball rotated, picking up
ink from the ink cartridge and leaving it on the paper.
DID YOU KNOW?:
- The principle of the ball point pen actually dates to 1888
when a patent was taken out by John J. Loud for a product to mark leather, however this
patent was not exploited commercially.
- Biro first patented the pen in 1938 and applied for a fresh
patent in Argentina on June 10, 1943 (Ladislo and his brother Georg emigrated to Argentina
- The licensing rights to this patent were bought by the
British Government for the war effort, the British Royal Air Force needed a new type of
pen, one that would not leak at high altitudes in fighter planes like the fountain pen
did. Their successful performance for the air force brought the Biro pen into the
- Commercially ball point pens were sold first in Buenos Aires
in 1945 by Eterpen Co.
- Biro had forgotten to get a U.S. Patent and so even with the
end of World War II, the Battle of the Ballpoint Pen was just beginning.
Sources in BOLD Type
page revised May 5, 2006.
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