History of the mighty pen

June 5, 2015

I’ve mentioned before how sometimes the simplest objects in our everyday lives pretty much go unnoticed. That is, anyway, until we need them.

Today’s column is about one such item, the ballpoint pen.

The first great success for the ballpoint pen came on an October morning in 1945 when a crowd of more than 5,000 people jammed into the entrance of New York City’s Gimbels Department Store. The day before, Gimbels had taken out a full-page ad in the New York Times promoting the first sale of ballpoint pens 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 really so new at all and didn’t work much better than ballpoint pens which had been produced 1o years before. The story begins in 1888 when John Loud, an American leather tanner, patented a roller-ball-tip marking pen. Loud’s invention featured a reservoir of ink and a roller ball which applied the thick ink to leather hides. This pen was never produces, nor were any of the other 350 patents for ball-type pens issued over the next 30 years. The major problem was the ink — if the ink was thin, the pens leaked; if it was too thick, they clogged. Depending on the temperature, the pen would sometimes do both.

The next stage of development came almost 50 years after Loud’s patent, with an improved version invented in Hungary in 1935 by Ladislas Biro and his brother, Georg. Ladislas was very talented and confident of his abilities, but he had never had a pursuit which 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. Another problem was that the sharp tip of his fountain pen often scratched or tore through the newspaper. 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 by the name of Augustine Justo, who happened to be the president of Argentina. After the brothers showed him their ballpoint pen model, President Justo urged them to set up a factory in Argentina. When World War II broke out in Europe, a few years later, the brothers fled to Argentina, stopping in Paris along the way to patent their pen.

Once in Argentina, the brothers 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 which had preceded it, depended on gravity for the ink to flow to the roller ball. This meant 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 brothers returned, once again, 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 Biro brothers were selling their new, improved ballpoint pen throughout Argentina. 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 Co. paid the Biro brothers $500,000 for the rights to manufacture their ballpoint pen in the U.S. Eberhard Faber later sold its rights to the Eversharp Co., but neither was quick about putting a pen on the market due to the bugs in the Biro design.

Meanwhile, in a surprise move, a 54 year old Chicago salesman named Milton Reynolds became the first American manufacturer to successfully market a ballpoint pen. While vacationing in Argentina, Reynolds had seen Biro’s pen in the stores and thought the novel product would sell well in America. Because many of the patents had expired, Reynolds thought he could avoid any legal problems, so he went about copying much of the Biro 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 which 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 his ballpoint could write under water, and he hired Esther Williams, the swimmer and movie star, to help prove it. Another manufacturer claimed his pen would write through 10 carbon copies, while still another demonstrated its pen would write upside down. However, the effect of the slogans and advertising wore off as soon as the owners discovered the many problems which 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 public favor and trust, someone was going to have to invent one which was smooth writing, quick drying, non-skipping, non-fading, and most importantly didn’t leak.

Two men, each with his own pen company, delivered all these results. The first was Patrick J. Frawley Jr. He 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 he bought Seech’s 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 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. The salesmen would then offer to replace the shirt with an even more expensive one if the ink did not completely wash out. The shirts did come clean and the promotion worked. As more and more retailers accepted the pen, which Frawley named 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 pen he had seen and he was also shocked at the high cost. He also recognized the ballpoint was a firmly established innovation and he resolved to design a high-quality pen at a low price which would scoop the market. He went to the Biro brothers and arranged to pay them a royalty on their patent. For two years Bich studied the detailed construction of every ballpoint pen on the market, often working with a microscope. By 1952 he was ready to introduce his new wonder: a clear-barreled, smooth-writing, non-leaking, inexpensive ballpoint pen he call 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 inventors.

It is the Biro brothers patent date of June 10, 1943 which is considered the birth of the ballpoint fountain pen. Now we know the rest of the story.


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