The Invention of the Ballpoint Pen: Background information when reading Code Name Verity

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Code Name Verity

by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein X
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
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  • First Published:
    May 2012, 352 pages
    May 2013, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Tamara Smith

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Beyond the Book:
The Invention of the Ballpoint Pen

Print Review

It's called an Eterpen, a truly wonderful thing, no messy ink to refill and it dries instantly. He said they have ordered 30,000 of them for the RAF to use in the air (for navigation calculations) and a grateful RAF officer recently smuggled out of France had given one of the samples to Peter, who'd given it to the sergeant, who gave it to Maddie. ...Maddie was ridiculously pleased with her pen.

Laszlo BiroThe gift that Maddie was so pleased to receive was, of course, the new and exciting ballpoint pen. László Bíró invented the first commercially viable ballpoint pen in 1938. Other attempts had been made before, but with little success because of issues with the viscosity of the ink and the need to rely on gravity. American tanner John Loud is, perhaps, the rightful inventor of the ballpoint pen, with his 1888 invention to mark leather products - a pen with a rotating ball held in place by a socket that used standard ink. Loud patented this invention, but it  only worked well on leather as it was too coarse for letter writing and would rip paper. It is said that 350 other ballpoint pen patents were registered between Loud and Bíró, but none were actually mass produced and sold.

Hungarian journalist Bíró worked as a proofreader and, as the story goes, spent countless hours frustrated by having to both refill his fountain pen and fix the smudge marks that inevitably occurred. Then he noticed that the ink on newspapers dried quickly and without smudges, and so with the help of his brother, who was a chemist, he created a pen that used the same ink. The pen had a rotating ball at its tip, which revolved in circles and picked up ink from a cartridge in the body of the pen. After a few failed attempts, they created a brand new design. This design used a piston and capillary action within the pressurized cartridge, which solved the flow-of-ink problem. Thus, the ballpoint pen!  Bíró patented his invention on June 15, 1938.

In 1941, Bíró, his brother and a friend, Juan Jorge Meyne, were forced to flee Nazi-occupied Germany. They ended up in  Argentina where they filed another patent - this time including Meyne - on June 10, 1941 and formed a company called Bíró Pens of Argentina.  They sold their ballpoint pens under the brand name Birome. This new design was licensed by the British who produced the pens (which they called the Biro) for the Royal Air Force pilots. The pens were infinitely superior to fountain pens at high altitudes and, it was not long before the pen's success with the RAF had pushed Bíró into the spotlight.

The ballpoint pen achieved spotty success for the next two decades. The Eberhard Faber Company paid $500,000 for the rights to manufacture Bíró's pen in the United States. At the same time, Milton Reynolds began manufacturing ballpoint pens after seeing Bíró's design while vacationing in Argentina. Without buying any of his rights, Reynolds copied Bíró's design. He made a deal with Gimbels to be the first store in America to sell these new pens.

Quirky claims began to fly about ballpoint pens as competition among pen manufacturers rose. Reynolds claimed, for example, that his pen could write under water and he hired the swimmer and movie star Esther Williams to be a spokeswoman for it. But this claim, as well as others, was proved untrue, and the ballpoint pen lost its appeal.

Marcel BichFinally two other men created separate pen companies and worked out the kinks in the ballpoint pen design. One was Patrick J. Frawley Jr. and, together with Fran Seech, he invented the first retractable ballpoint pen with no-smear ink. Frawley named this pen the Papermate. The other man was Frenchman Marcel Bich. He paid Bíró a royalty on his original patent and then studied the pen (and others) carefully for two years. In 1952, he launched his new design, which was smooth writing, non-leaky, and inexpensive. He called this pen - you guessed it - the Bic pen.

You can read more about the history of the ballpoint pen in Ballpoint: A Tale of Genius and Grit, Perilous Times, and the Invention that Changed the Way We Write.

Images: Top: László Bíró; Bottom: Marcel Bich

Article by Tamara Smith

This article was originally published in July 2012, and has been updated for the May 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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