The Birth of Ballpoints

pen machineIf you’ve written any notes lately, chances are you used a ballpoint pen. Ubiquitous now—except when I’m on the phone and need one—the pens did not debut in the United States until after World War II. But their story began in the 19th century.

An American tanner named John Loud patented a marking pen with a roller ball tip in 1888, an invention he created to write on his leather products. While it may have worked on leather, the pen failed on paper, and everyone continued to write with the new wonder of the age: the fountain pen. Fast forward to the 1930s when Hungarian brothers Ladislas and Georg Biro began tinkering with designs for their own ballpoint pens. After war broke out in Europe, the brothers fled to Argentina and started manufacturing Biro pens there in 1943 (which explains why pens are still called “biros” in some countries, such as Australia and England).

Dad and his pipe

Other players entered the pen game, either paying royalties on the Biros’ patent or designing pens on their own, with the result that Gimbels Department store sold the first ballpoint pens in America on October 29, 1945. Wildly popular, 10,000 pens flew out the door that first day, selling at around $10 each. To put that price in perspective, in 1945 you could buy a candy bar for a nickel, a gallon of gas for 21¢, and a movie ticket (including cartoon, news reel and a second feature) for 35¢.

Within a year, enough pens hit the shelves to push prices down. My own father, Gunnar Lendroth, entered the pen market briefly in 1946 when he hustled ballpoint pens on a New York City street corner for a buck apiece. He was an enterprising young guy…

The new pens were hot. And then they were not. Despite the hype, ballpoint pens did not yet write well. Ink leaked, the flow skipped and writing smeared because it didn’t dry quickly enough.

By 1951, most people had returned to using fountain pens. However, within a couple of years, new companies started the ink ball rolling again, including the French manufacturer Marcel Bich (who named his pens Bic) along with Parker and Paper Mate. By the 1960s, ballpoint pens had again captured the lead, leaving fountain pens the high end niche market.

So whether you uncap a finely weighted Waterman or click a Bic, be thankful we no longer have to sharpen quills to write letters.