Ballpoint pen graphic

Classic Projects: ballpoint pen

Date: UK patent 15 June 1938Designer: László BíróUnit Cost: Original units cost the equivalent of £27

There are patents for ballpoint pen designs dating as far back as 1888, when John Loud filed his design for an early version of the technology. But what we think of today as the ballpoint pen really derives from the 1938 patent (British patent no 498,997) registered by the Hungarian László Bíró. It was Bíró's 'improved fountain pen' that ushered in the modern age of writing with, as the patent describes, a rotatably-mounted ball as the marking element and a soft pulp dye as the marking agent. So profound was the designer's influence on the world of writing instruments that the word 'Biro' (always spelled with an upper case 'b' or you'll receive a stern letter from the manufacturer's solicitor) has passed into many languages as a generic term for any ballpoint pen. Seventy-five years after his patent, it is generally accepted that Bíró is the technology's inventor.

The ballpoint was designed to supersede the fountain pen and quill, which while capable of producing wonderful calligraphy were unsuited to the industrial world. Relying on capillary action, the fountain pen needed thin India ink to function, creating problems of uneven flow and lengthy drying times. Fountain pens require regular maintenance and cleaning, and critically couldn't be used in aeroplanes, because the changes in air pressure would cause them to flood. The Royal Air Force was one of the first bulk customers of Bíró's writing tool, ordering 30,000 units for navigators, allowing them to write at high altitude.

Bíró - a journalist by trade - disliked fountain pens because they were messy and unreliable, and first became interested in the idea of designing an alternative when visiting a printing press in Budapest. Witnessing the printer's ink drying almost immediately, he set about conceiving "how this process could be simplified right down to the level of an ordinary pen". He attempted to use printer's ink in a fountain pen, but finding it too viscous he turned to his brother György, a chemist. Together they adapted the ink so that it could be delivered to the writing surface by means of a nib that was essentially a ball bearing.

The idea of the ball was not entirely new, but delivering the ink under pressure rather than by gravity was, and this was one of the keys to his success. In 1940 Bíró went into exile, fleeing to Argentina to escape the war, where he filed another patent in 1943 (this time with the European Patent Office) and went into production in 1944. In 1945, Bíró sold the intellectual property for the ballpoint pen design to Marcel Bich, co-founder of Bic, who are to this day a leading producer of ballpoint pens.

It was Bich (who shortened his name to Bic), who introduced the mass-production techniques that allowed ballpoint pens to become cheap and ubiquitous. The design was simplified over time with the standard components being the rotating ball, the socket to hold the ball, the reservoir (essentially a narrow plastic tube containing the ink which feeds to the ball), and a wider tube or barrel to house the assembly in.

Barrels are usually vented by means of a small hole, the purpose of which often causes prolonged debates among engineers. Theories regarding the purpose of the vent range from the sensible to the absurd. Bic itself says it's there to equalise air pressure inside and outside of the barrel to prevent leakage, while many engineers fondly remember it being the perfect place to introduce a compass point in order to assemble a rudimentary helicopter-type executive toy.

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