Amy M. Lavine – The inky history of the ballpoint pen

Amy M Lavine
A handful of colorful ballpoint pens. Photo credit Amy M Lavine 2016.

The concept behind the ballpoint pen has been around since 1888, when the first patent for a ballpoint was issued, but early ballpoints were mostly doomed because the only ink available at the time was thin fountain pen ink that leaked and smeared when used with ball-tips. These problems weren’t solved until the 1940s, when the Biro brothers invented a more viscous and faster drying ink and produced an improved design that reduced leaking.

Large-scale distribution of ballpoints pens began in France after Marcel Bich bought the patent to the brothers’ pen and renamed them “Bics.” He lowered the cost of ballpoints from about $10 in 1946 to 19 cents in 1959 (about the same cost as today), making them an economical choice and giving them an additional commercial edge over fountain pens, which required frequent refills and cleaning and which often leaked and clogged. Bics soon became incredibly popular and eventually became the ubiquitous product they are today.

Along with their success, ballpoints had an unforeseen consequence: they sounded the death knell for cursive handwriting. This occurred because the viscous ink that makes ballpoints so convenient also requires them to be held with more pressure and at a more vertical angle than fountain pens. As a result, ballpoints make it difficult to join letters together in fluid script and encourage handwriting with more separation instead.

Amy M Lavine is the owner of Sketch Art Supplies. For questions about ballpoints or any other pens, contact Amy M Lavine at sketchhudson@gmail.com.