Who invented the ballpoint pen may not be a question you ask yourself often, as this writing tool is so ubiquitous, you rarely give it a second thought. But, for such a run-of-the-mill item, it truly has an interesting story with twists, turns, and an unlikely inventor you rarely hear about.
When you research the inventor of the ballpoint pen, one name always pops up at the top: László Bíró. And, while it is true that he’s the inventor of the modern ballpoint pen, another man paved the way for Bíró.
His name is John J. Loud, a Harvard-educated lawyer, leather tanner, and inventor born on November 2, 1844. In his leather tanning business, he often had to mark up leather to note where to cut it, and found that a pencil couldn’t do the job and a fountain pen was just too messy. This challenge inspired him to create a writing instrument with a small rotating metal ball that was held in place by a socket.
On October 30, 1888, Loud obtained patent US #392,046, which is the first patent for the ballpoint pen. In the patent, he described the writing tool as such:
“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.”
While Loud’s ballpoint pen was great for writing on leather, it was far too rough for paper. This limited the marketability of the pen, and the patent eventually lapsed, making way for more usable iterations.
It would take many more years, and even more patents, before the modern-day ballpoint pen came to market. The first prototypes were flawed, from ink that overflowed or didn’t flow at all, to ink that didn’t flow evenly. Inventors tried to fix the issues with creative solutions like piston-pressurized ink reservoirs, springs, and capillary action (the ability of ink to flow in narrow spaces without the assistance of gravity), but it wasn’t until the early 20th century that all the pieces fell into place.
Enter Hungarian-born László Bíró and his brother, György. Much like Loud, Bíró created his version of the ballpoint pen out of frustration: he was a newspaper editor who needed a pen with ink that dried quickly and didn’t smudge. While working at the newspaper, he realized that the ink used on newsprint dried quickly and was generally smudge-free. He then took that idea to his chemist brother, György, in hopes of creating something that would work for him.
The key to their success was a combination of a thick, sticky (often called viscous) ink and a tiny ball bearing. In simple terms, this ball-and-socket mechanism allows the ball to roll around easily on paper while sealing the ink from the air so it doesn’t dry out.
The world was introduced to this modern-day ballpoint pen in 1931 at the Budapest International Fair, and the Bíró brothers filed for patents in France and Britain seven years later on June 15th, 1938. The growth continued when the brothers and their friend, Juan Jorge Meyne, opened the Bíró Pens of Argentina factory in Buenos Aires. They filed for an Argentinian patent in 1943 and named their pen the Birome, a blending of the sounds of their names Biro and Meyne. In fact, to this day, pens are called Biromes in Argentina.
After World War II, the race was on to bring the modern ballpoint pen to the United States. Eversharp, “the biggest pen and pencil maker in the world” according to TIME, acquired the North and Central American rights to the ballpoint pen for half a million dollars and began working on their version.
In the meantime, however, Milton Reynolds was working on his version of the ballpoint pen that skirted the patent. His allowed the ink to flow by gravity and not by the patented capillary action. Although Reynolds was aware that the gravity feed was prone to leaking, he rushed the pen into production anyway—on October 29, 1945, the Reynolds Rocket was introduced at Gimbels, a department store in New York City. One pen sold for $12.50, which is approximately $170 in 2017 dollars! The Reynolds Rocket was heralded a success with thousands sold in that first week.
Eventually, the Birome made its way to the US thanks to Marcel Bich. He licensed the ballpoint pen designs from Bíró and created the BIC Company in 1953. Although the company initially struggled, it saw much success after launching the “Writes the First Time, Every Time!” advertising campaign in the 1960s.
And if you can’t wait to get your hands on your own ballpoint pen, check out our most popular custom pens.
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