A Hungarian journalist named Laszlo Biro invented the first ballpoint pen in 1938. Biro had noticed that the type of ink used in newspaper printing dried quickly, leaving the paper dry and smudge-free. He decided to create a pen using the same type of ink. The thicker ink would not flow from a regular pen nib and Biro had to devise a new type of point. He did so by fitting his pen with a tiny ball bearing in its tip. As the pen moved along the paper, the ball rotated picking up ink from the ink cartridge and leaving it on the paper. This principle of the ballpoint pen actually dates back to an 1888 patent owned by John J. Loud for a product to mark leather. However, this patent was commercially unexploited. Laszlo Biro first patented his pen in 1938, and applied for a fresh patent in Argentina on June 10, 1943. (Laszlo Biro and his brother Georg Biro emigrated to Argentina in 1940.) The British Government bought the licensing rights to this patent for the war effort. The British Royal Air Force needed a new type of pen, one that would not leak at higher altitudes in fighter planes as the fountain pen did. Their successful performance for the Air Force brought the Biro pens into the limelight. Laszlo Biro had neglected to get a U.S. patent for his pen and so even with the ending of World War II, another battle was just beginning..
Historical Outline – The Battle of Ballpoint Pens
The first pen-writing instrument was the quill pen dipped into dark paint. There became a need to lengthen the time between dips, eliminate splatter, eliminate smearing and improve pen handling.
- Early 1800s: The first designs for pens that could hold their own ink patented.
- 1884: L.E. Waterman, a New York City insurance salesman, designed the first workable fountain pen, the fountain pen becomes the predominant writing instrument for the next sixty years. Four fountain pen manufactures dominate the market: Parker, Sheaffer, Waterman and Wahl-Eversharp.
- 1938: Invention of a ballpoint pen by two Hungarian inventors, Laszlo Biro and George Biro. The brothers both worked on the pen and applied for patents in 1938 and 1940. The new-formed Eterpen Company in Argentina commercialized the Biro pen. The press hailed the success of this writing tool because it could write for a year without refilling.
- May 1945: Eversharp Co. teams up with Eberhard-Faber to acquire the exclusive rights to Biro Pens of Argentina. The pen re-branded the “Eversharp CA” which stood for Capillary Action. Released to the press months in advance of public sales.
- June, 1945: Less than a month after Eversharp/Eberhard close the deal with Eterpen, Chicago businessman, Milton Reynolds visits Buenos Aires. While in a store, he sees the Biro pen and recognizes the pen’s sales potential. He buys a few pens as samples. Reynolds returns to America and starts the Reynolds International Pen Company, ignoring Eversharp’s patent rights.
- October 29, 1945: Reynolds copies the product in four months and sells his product Reynold’s Rocket at Gimbel’s department store in New York City. Reynolds’ imitation beats Eversharp to market. Reynolds’ pen is immediately successful: Priced at $12.50, $100,000 worth sold the first day on the market.
- December, 1945: Britain was not far behind with the first ballpoint pens available to the public sold at Christmas by the Miles-Martin Pen Company.
The Ballpoint Pen Becomes a Fad
Ballpoint pens guaranteed to write for two years without refilling, claimed to be smear proof. Reynolds advertised it as the pen “to write under water.” Eversharp sued Reynolds for copying the design it had acquired legally. The previous 1888 patent by John Loud would have invalidated everyone’s claims. However, no one knew that at the time. Sales skyrocketed for both competitors. Nevertheless, the Reynolds’ pen leaked, skipped and often failed to write. Eversharp’s pen did not live up to its own advertisements. A very high volume of pen returns occurred for both Eversharp and Reynolds. The ballpoint pen fad ended – due to consumer unhappiness.
- 1948: Frequent price wars, poor quality products, and heavy advertising costs hurt each side. Sales did a nosedive. The original asking price of $12.50 dropped to less than 50 cents per pen.
- 1950: The French Baron called Bich, drops the h and starts BIC and starts selling pens.
- 1951: The ballpoint pen dies a consumer death. Fountain pens are number one again. Reynolds folds.
- January, 1954: Parker Pens introduces its first ballpoint pen, the Jotter. The Jotter wrote five times longer than the Eversharp or Reynolds pens. It had a variety of point sizes, a rotating cartridge and large-capacity ink refills. Best of all, it worked. Parker sold 3.5 million Jotters @ $2.95 to $8.75 in less then one year.
The Ballpoint Pen Battle is Won
- 1957: Parker introduces the tungsten carbide textured ball bearing in their ballpoint pens. Eversharp was in deep financial trouble and tried to switch back to selling fountain pens. Eversharp sold its pen division to Parker Pens and Eversharp’s assets finally liquidated in the 1960’s.
- Late 1950’s: BIC ® held 70 percent of European market.
- 1958: BIC buys 60 percent of the New York based Waterman Pens.
- 1960: BIC owns 100 percent of Waterman Pens. BIC sells ballpoint pens in U.S. for 29 – 69 cents.
The Ballpoint Pen War is Won
BIC ® dominates the market. Parker, Sheaffer and Waterman, capture the smaller upscale markets of fountain pens and expensive ballpoints.
Today: The highly popular modern version of Laszlo Biro’s pen, the BIC Crystal, has a daily world wide sales figure of 14,000,000 pieces. Biro is still the generic name used for the ballpoint pen in most of the world. The Biro pens used by the British Air Force in W.W.II worked. Parker black ballpoint pens will produce more than 28,000 linear feet of writing — more than five miles, before running out of ink.