The Dramatic and Short History of the Humble Ballpoint Pen

ballpoint pen


When you are handing out promotional pens, you probably don’t stop to think about what an amazing and revolutionary device the humble ballpoint pen actually is. Today, they are ubiquitous and inexpensive. There’s at least one in the bottom of your bag, your glove box, your junk drawer. You think nothing of tossing one in the bin when it is used up. But your great grandparents did not enjoy this convenience. They used fountain pens. Messy, delicate implements with a rubber bag to hold ink that had to be refilled. The ink had to be allowed to dry or it would smudge and become illegible. The fountain pen features a metal nib at the end to direct the ink, and those nibs could be dainty and easily damaged. Jotting a quick note in your diary wasn’t always such a quick and simple matter, unless you used a pencil.

The handy pens we take for granted have been around for less than 100 years, and it took many years for inventors to perfect the them. The first real effort resulted in John J. Loud, a graduate of Harvard’s law school who worked as a bank cashier, filing a patent in 1888. But Loud’s early ballpoint pens were leaky. The ink didn’t flow evenly, and it took a while to dry.

As precision technology improved, other inventors were able to improve on the simple ball and socket design. The race was on then to develop a functional ballpoint pen. A Hungarian newspaper editor named Laszlo Biro realized the last hurdle was the ink. He turned to his brother Gyorgy, a chemist, for help. Biro filed a patent in 1938 in the UK. But in 1941 WWII forced the brothers and a friend of theirs, Juan Jorge Meyne, to flee to Argentina. There they set up shop manufacturing their newly perfected pens under the trade name Birome. (And now you know why we call pens biros.)

Sadly for them, American manufacturers got wind of the design and Birome’s efforts to protect their patent failed. Different American companies were suing each other, and meanwhile the new pens were flying off the shelves. The big winners were those who got the product into the consumers’ hands first.

While the name ‘biro’ stuck in some parts of the world (notably not in the USA), the company wasn’t able to profit from their revolutionary product. That’s something to ponder as your further your own brand recognition with promotional pens.

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