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The Ballpoint Pen

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A selection of ballpoint pens.

A ballpoint pen works using gravity, directing ink towards the paper when held nib down. A small ball at the pointed end of the reservoir rolls viscous ink onto paper. As the pen moves across the paper, the ball is able to rotate and the ink dries immediately. The ball, made from brass, steel or tungsten carbide, is held tightly in position by a socket, and acts as a buffer between the paper and ink. The ball seals the ink from the air, preventing it from drying out in the reservoir.

The size of a ballpoint pen's line is determined by the width of the ballpoint. A 0.5mm pen has a ball that will produce a line that is 0.5mm wide. Ultra-fine ballpoints produce lines that measure 0.1mm in width.

Development of the Ballpoint Pen

The first patent on a ballpoint pen was issued on 30 October, 1888, to John J Loud. The pen had a rotating small steel ball bearing. As with modern ballpoint pens, the ball was held in place by a socket. It was fitted with a means for supplying heavy, sticky ink to the ball. The pen proved to be too coarse for letter writing, but it could be used to mark rough surfaces, especially leather. However, the patent was commercially unexploited and another ballpoint pen device was patented by Van Vechten Riesburg in 1916. The patent lapsed without improvement renewal.

Commercial models appeared in 1895, but the first satisfactory model of a ballpoint pen was designed by two Hungarian brothers living in Argentina: Lazlo, a journalist, and George Biro, a chemist. Lazlo noticed that the type of ink used in newspaper printing dried quickly, leaving the paper dry and smudge-free. He decided to create a pen using quick-drying ink instead of India ink. The thicker ink, though, would not flow from an ordinary pen nib and Biro had to devise a new type of point. Lazlo put a tiny metal ball bearing in the tip of a pen, the success of the ballpoint pen is due to the accuracy in which the ball is ground.

The ball bearing is housed in a socket, placed at the end of a tube of ink. As the pen moves along the paper, the ball rotates smoothly in a metal seat. The seat was formed by pressing the ball into the previously machined metal socket to form its own impression. It picks up ink from the ink cartridge and rolls the ink onto the surface of the paper. The ball is constantly bathed in ink from a reservoir. One end of the reservoir is open, while the other end is attached to the writing tip. Thus, the ball has two functions - to act as a cap to keep the ink from drying and to let ink flow out of the pen at a controlled rate.

The pen could write reasonably even lines, similar to those produced by fountain pens. Early versions of the ballpoint pen were expensive, as the nib was attached to the body of the pen. As the nib was easily damaged, the whole pen had to be replaced if it was broken.

Biro

Lazlo Biro applied for patents in 1938 and 1940 with the European Patent Office. In 1938, the newly formed Eterpen Company manufactured the Biro pen. Lazlo eventually sold the patents to Eversharp.

The ballpoint pen, commonly called the 'biro' became popular in Great Britain during the late 1930s. As Biro had neglected to obtain a North American patent for the pen, he missed the lucrative opportunity of manufacturing the pen in the US. In addition, this enabled the British government to purchase the licensing rights.

In 1939, the Royal Air Force needed a new type of pen because the conventional fountain pen leaked when fighter planes flew at high altitudes with reduced pressure. During World War II, the ballpoint pen was widely used by the military forces because of its toughness and ability to survive the battle environment. By the mid-1940s, pens of this type were widely used throughout much of the world. The press hailed the success of the biro because you could write for a year with it without refilling.

In the United States, the first successful, commercially produced ballpoint pen to replace the fountain pen was introduced by Milton Reynolds in 1945. It used a tiny ball that rolled heavy, gelatine-consistency ink onto the paper. The Reynolds Pen was marketed as 'the first pen to write underwater' guaranteed to write for two years without refilling and was claimed to be smear proof. The pen retailed at $12.50, which was considered expensive. However, on its first day of sale, in a New York department store, $100,000 worth of ballpoint pens were sold, primarily due to the introduction of this new technology.

Every large fountain pen manufacturing company became involved with the development of the ballpoint pen. Eversharp introduced the capillary action ballpoint pen, based on the original Biro patents, in the Spring of 1946. Although the company intended to be the first on the market in the US with a ballpoint pen, they were in fact the second. Legal battles with competitors slowly drained the company's resources. Few notable Eversharp models appeared in the 1950s. Parker acquired the writing instrument division of Eversharp Inc in 1957, in an attempt to penetrate the lower-price ballpoint pen market.

Parker Pens believed the release of the product was premature from a technical standpoint. They were proved correct, as these early pens were primitive writing instruments. Many models leaked, did not write evenly and often didn't write at all. Very high numbers of ballpoints were returned. By 1948, the price of the Biro dropped to less than 50 cents per pen.

However, in 1945, Baron Marcel Bich, a Frenchman, realised the potential of the pen. Bich tested the Biro and concluded that the pen was unreliable because of the heavy ink that was used. The ink flowed either too freely or not at all. Bich developed gravity-flow inks held in rubber sacks, and then in brass tubes, which proved most popular. Using a layer of heavy grease to force the flow of ink resulted in improved performance.

BiC

Bich founded the BiC Company, with the aim of manufacturing inexpensive ballpoint pens. Adopting rigorous standards of quality control, Bich developed the industrial process for making the pens that lowered the unit cost dramatically. In 1949, Bich introduced his pens in Europe. He called the pens 'BiC' a shortened, easy-to-remember version of his name.

In 1955, BiC introduced its pens to the American market. Initially, consumers were reluctant to buy the pens, as so many unreliable pens had been introduced to the US market by other manufacturers. To increase sales, BiC created a televised advertising campaign, with the slogan, 'Writes First Time, Every Time!' The pen retailed for only 29 cents. Within a year, competition forced prices down to less than 10 cents each.

By the early 1960s, BiC dominated the ballpoint pen market. Parker, Schaeffer and Waterman captured the smaller upscale markets of fountain pens and expensive ballpoints. Currently, the highly popular modern version of Lazlo Biro's pen, the BiC Crystal, has a daily world wide sales figure of 14,000,000 pens. Biro is still the generic name used for the ballpoint pen in most of the world.

The Cheap Disposable vs the Luxury Writing Implement

Following tremendous research in 1954, Parker Pen introduced their first ballpoint pen. Known as the 'Jotter' it was fitted with a rotating cartridge refill, that could offer users the advantage of even ball wear, which resulted in smooth writing. The cartridge moved 90° every time the user 'clicked' the pen. Using this rotating feature, up to four different styles of writing could be produced. This feature wasn't available in other ballpoint pens, including the market leader, PaperMate. The Jotter was able to write efficiently and could write five times longer than other models of ballpoints. It was available in a variety of point sizes, with a rotating cartridge and had large-capacity ink refills. As users found it wrote reliably and consistently, sales increased to 3.5 million in its first year. It retailed between $2.95 and $8.75.

In 1957, a major technical development in ball pen writing was developed by Parker, with the introduction of a textured tungsten carbide ball, which replaced the solid ball bearing. Known as the T-ball, the textured ball is a technologically perfect sphere that literally grips writing surfaces, including those that are rough, greasy or slick. The surface of the T-Ball surface is actually composed of some 50,000 polished surfaces and pits, with pits joined by even smaller channels. The channels and pits are continuous throughout the interior of the sphere, approximating the interior structure of a sugar cube. The T-ball was incorporated into the Jotter Pen.

Advances in the technology of 'sintering', the controlled bonding of metal particles by heat transfer, allowed Parker to produce a sintered sphere that holds more ink inside than on the surface. It measures one millimetre in diameter. With these improvements, Parker introduced the T-Ball Jotter and by 1961, it became the best selling ballpoint pen around the world in the quality price category (ie, over $1.00).

A further advance in Parker ball pen technology was in 1963, with the introduction of the stainless steel ball socket. This type of socket is stronger, is more resistant to corrosion and has a significantly longer life span than the soft bronze socket. About durability, it is better suited to the surface of the T-Ball. This development produced a better writing line.

In 1970, the futuristically styled Parker 'T-l' was manufactured with Titanium components. However, the choice of material caused many technical problems and the product was withdrawn after a few years.

The Jotter remains one of Parker's best selling writing instruments, with annual sales of nearly 17 million. Improvements in paste inks offer greater resistance to weather and extremes of air pressure. Thus, Parker Pens can perform in the heat of the Sahara Desert, in high altitudes of the Andes and the freezing temperatures experienced in Alaska. The Jotter is currently available with a stainless steel cap, and the barrel in available in a choice of 30 colours. Jotter refills are available in five different point sizes with a choice of four writing ink colours. Parker maintains that the quality and reliability of the T-ball cannot be improved. It is used in every Parker ball pen that is manufactured, from the current Jotter model to the solid-gold Presidential model. Parker black ballpoint pens produce more than 28,000 linear feet of writing, more than five miles, before running out of ink. This offers 7,000 feet more writing service than the competition.


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