When Was the First Workable Ballpoint Pen Patented?
The first workable ballpoint pen was patented in 1937 by László József Bíró, a Hungarian living in Argentina, but ideas for ballpoint pens date back to the late 1890s. Biro’s pen became popular during 1938 and 1939. The United States forces welcomed it because the Quarter-master General of the Army had called for a writing instrument which would not leak at high altitudes, would use a quick-drying ink unaffected by changes in climate and would contain enough ink to last for a considerable time.
In this type of pen a ball, housed in a socket at the tip, transfers special ink from a reservoir on to the surface of the writing paper. The inks used have dyes which are soluble in oil or spirit. The first type dries because it is absorbed into the paper, the second because it evaporates. At one time most of the balls used in ballpoint pens were made of stainless steel, but now many other metals and plastics are used.
It was while working as a journalist that he noticed that the ink used in newspaper printing dried quickly, leaving the paper dry and smudge-free. He tried using the same ink in a fountain pen but found that it would not flow into the tip, as it was too viscous.
He presented the first production of the ballpoint pen at the Budapest International Fair in 1931. Working with his brother György, a chemist, he developed a new tip consisting of a ball that was free to turn in a socket, and as it turned it would pick up ink from a cartridge and then roll to deposit it on the paper. Bíró patented the invention in Paris in 1938.
During World War II, Bíró was forced to flee the Nazis. In 1943, the brothers moved to Argentina. On 10 June, they filed another patent, issued in the US as 2,390,636 Writing Instrument, and formed Biro Pens of Argentina (in Argentina the ballpoint pen is known as birome). This new design was licensed for production in the United Kingdom for supply to Royal Air Force aircrew, who found they worked much better than fountain pens at high altitude.
In 1945, Marcel Bich bought the patent from Bíró for the pen, which soon became the main product of his Bic Company, which has sold more than 100 billion ballpoint pens worldwide. In November of that same year, promoter Milton Reynolds introduced a gravity-fed pen to the U.S. market. The Reynolds Pen was a sensation for a few years, until its reputation for leaking and competition from established pen manufacturers overtook it.
Bíró’s patent was based on capillary action, which caused ink to be drawn out of the pen as it was deposited on the paper. Because the Reynolds workaround depended on gravity, it did not infringe but required thinner ink and a larger barrel. László Bíró died in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1985. Argentina’s Inventors’ Day is celebrated on Bíró’s birthday, 29 September.