Who Invented the Ballpoint Pen?

As a former graphic designer, I used ballpoint pens all the time. I always had one with me. In fact, I still do. They're precise, reliable, and they dry quickly, which makes them ideal for quick sketches on napkins.

It's hard to imagine a world without pens. Which is why the ballpoint pen is ranked as one of the most significant inventions of all time by Popular Mechanics. Its effect on society, literacy, design, and commerce is apparent.


But it wasn't always that way. Initially, ballpoint pens were met with with cynicism. A teacher in the 1950s stated

Ballpoint pens will be the ruin of education in our country. Students use these devices then throw them away. The values of thrift and frugality are being discarded. Businesses and banks will never allow such expensive luxuries.

It's understandable. Frugality was a part of American culture then. We were not accustomed to the idea of disposable products, let alone something as important as a writing instrument. Today we throw away water bottles, mobile phones, cars, and, of course, pens. Almost everything we consume today is designed to "expire".

The concept of planned obsolescence was in its nascency in the 1950s so it's no surprise that people were having this reaction. The pen was just the tip of the iceberg.

But how did we get to this point?

László Bíró and the Ballpoint Pen We Know Today

On June 15, 1938, László Bíró created the ballpoint pen that we know today. Although, Biró is credited as the "inventor" of the ballpoint pen, there was a predecessor by the name of John Loud.

László Bíró holding his patented ballpoint pen.

László Bíró holding his patented ballpoint pen.

Loud patented the first ballpoint pen on October 30, 1888, which was intended to be an improved version of the popular quill and ink system. He wanted a writing instrument that could transfer ink easily to hard surfaces such as wood, leather, and course paper. Like Bíró's ballpoint pen, Loud's pen had a rotating steel ball held in place by a socket. However, unlike Bíró's pen, Loud's version was not great for writing on soft paper commonly used for letter writing.

After several decades of no commercial viability, Loud's opportunity lapsed when his patent expired.

"Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill" by Pieter Claeszoon featuring a writing quill.

"Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill" by Pieter Claeszoon featuring a writing quill.

Around the same time, Bíró was hard at work perfecting his version of the ballpoint pen. He was working at a newspaper and was frustrated with the wasted time he spent filling up his ink well and by how much the paper kept smudging. He noticed how quickly the newspaper ink dried and how it didn't smudge. He became determined to create a pen that used that same ink so he could save time.

He managed to convince his brother, a chemist, to help him.

During the War, he fled Germany and moved to Argentina where he established a company and began selling his "Birome" pens, as they are still called there today, to great success.

The Bic Cristal Pen

In 1945, a man named Marcel Bich saw Bíró's pen while visiting Argentina. Bich bought several, brought them back to the United States, improved upon the design, and patented his own version.

The Bic Cristal, the world's best selling ballpoint pen.

The Bic Cristal, the world's best selling ballpoint pen.

Bich shortened his name to Bic because he thought it would be easier for consumers to remember. He hired a Swiss designer and took out a large amount of advertisements to promote his new product.

Finally, in 1950, he brought the Bic Cristal to the American market.

But it wasn't until his ad campaign, which featured a now well-known slogan, that his pen really took off:

Write's The First Time, Every Time!

According to the Guinness World Records, The Bic Cristal is the most widely sold ballpoint pen in the world. Over 100,000,000,000 Bic Cristal pens have been sold.

Bic is well associated with disposable consumer products to this day. The Bic Cristal was just the beginning.

The Ballpoint Pen's Effects on Society

Up until the 1950s, writing was a chore. First of all, you had to make sure you were in a place that had a pen and ink. Then you had to prepare the pen and ink. Then you had to worry about the mess it created from the smudges, wet ink, and overlapping pages or cuffs rubbing against the ink. It wasn't easy or fun. It was most certainly not convenient.

As the ballpoint pen became widely accepted, things started to change. Suddenly people could write anywhere, anytime, virtually on any surface. The ballpoint pen was found in places that a typical pen and ink could not be found; in someone's pocket, for example.

Suddenly, writing became portable and convenient.

People could instantly write down ideas or make lists when they needed to. There was no longer a need for people to worry about remembering important information. With the new ballpoint pen, they could simply reach in their pocket and jot down whatever idea popped into their head. Productivity likely increased greatly because of this simple change.

Imagine the number of inventions that were sketched out with ballpoint pens, the notes made, the directions jotted down, the logos that were designed on napkins, the buildings that were sketched out, and the checks that were written to finance new developments and businesses.

Even with the advent of mobile phones and tablets, 73% of people still carry a writing instrument with them. Of that, 83% use a ballpoint pen.

Ballpoint pens are clearly still an essential part of our society's progress.

What will you write for the future of your business?

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