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The ballpoint almost died

The Ballpoint Almost Died

I reached for it one morning last week as I always do–there it was between my cup of desperately needed fix of morning coffee and my stapler. There it waited for me to assign it a task to begin my day–my ballpoint pen. As always, there’s a check or some other document waiting to be signed and sent on its way. Sometimes it’s needed for a very pointed personal note directed at one of my colleagues. Let’s face it, some tasks can’t be handled by a computer or Blackberry.
On that particular day, I gave this useful instrument some thought, although I must admit I’m not one who takes these instruments for granted. After all, on occasion I do collect some of the old ones from the 1950’s whenever I come across them in an antique shop. Normally they’re forlorn, grouped together in a plastic freezer bag, collecting dust on a vendor’s counter, but they can be treasures.
Some can actually tell you where they come from because, just like today, they were given out to promote companies. It’s fun to come across those that are imprinted with company logos and information about companies from various parts of the country so long ago. One can assume that some of these companies no longer exist.
It always amusing to read some of the imprinted telephone numbers with those old exchanges like BR for Broadway, or DI for Dickens, that were used in the old days before things got more crowded and hectic, requiring the ten digit numbers we have today.
While I was mulling over some of the old ballpoints in my collection, I decided that on the upcoming weekend, I would take a trip and see my old friend Dave, an antique dealer, who sells his wares out of a stall he rents from a small antique shop in southern Pennsylvania.
Dave collects a variety of old items in his stall and is a repository of knowledge I like to tap into sometimes. He also has a parrot that has a habit of repeating whatever Dave says. I guess it can be helpful if you didn’t quite catch what Dave said the first time around, and the instant repeat is available, but sometimes it’s downright annoying.
Fortunately on the day I visited Dave, the parrot was busy feeding on a special diet of pellets and seeds Dave makes for him, so I was spared the instant repeats.
I asked Dave if he knew anything about the history of ballpoint pens. He didn’t disappoint me.
According to Dave, an American leather tanner named John Loud patented a design for a marking pen that had a roller ball system in it that he used for marking hides. Unfortunately he used a complex three ball system and the ink was a problem, heavily affected by the temperature. It was either too thin and leaked profusely on John causing him to utter nasty utterances, or it was too thick and wouldn’t come out at all, also causing the same result. This slight problem prevented it from being produced and, like a vampire at sunrise, the idea fell dormant for a while–make that about 47 years or so.
The idea suddenly awakened in 1935 when a Hungarian journalist named Ladislas Biro had an epiphany as he noticed how his newspaper ink dried so quickly after being deposited on the paper. Fed up with how fountain pens leaked and could rip through newspaper print when he wrote on it, he enlisted the help of his brother Georg who happened to be a chemist, in developing an ink that could be used in a working ballpoint pen.
Working with his brother, a working ballpoint pen was developed. Because of World War II, both fled to Argentina where they set up a manufacturing plant but the pens still had problems—they would only work when held straight up, and even then, they left globs of ink on the paper. It was back to the lab for an improvement. This time a rough ball was used at the end that used capillary action to attract the ink to the ball, rather than depending on gravity.
The new pen attracted the attention of a British government representative who happened to be in Argentina. He thought it would be ideal for World War II pilots when flying at high altitudes where fountain pens would leak, and where pilots had to write at strange angles. The Biros brothers’ pens, took to the skies, so to speak, in the British Air Force.
At the end of the war, The Eberhard Faber Company teamed up with the Eversharp Company and bought the rights to produce the pens for the American market but they were a bit slow in bringing the pen to market as someone else stole their thunder. That was one Mr. Milton Reynolds, an enterprising salesman who saw an excellent opportunity to bring it to the American market after he saw the pen in Argentina.
Since there were no American patents for the for the Biros’s design and most of the other patents had expired, and being as enterprising a salesman as he was, he ignored the rights Eberhard-Eversharp had and just plain copied the design. Then as The International Pen Company, with a few hundred employees, he began producing the pen. Teaming up with Gimbel’s Department store and a great PR campaign, the pen successfully debuted in October 1945 at $12.50 a copy.
Two months later the Miles-Martin Pen Company introduced the British public to the ballpoint pen. Other companies soon entered the market as competition ensued with heavy advertising saturated with slogans, and price wars.
Unfortunately, although greatly improved over the Loud model, most ballpoint pens still leaked, smeared their inks, skipped and were generally unreliable, By 1951, the former king of writing instruments—the fountain pen—regained its crown as people lost interest in the unreliable ballpoint and the novelty wore off.
In order for the pen to make a comeback, someone would have to make some improvements—and as the early fifties rolled on someone did—several actually.
Patrick J. Frawley, A high school dropout who became an enterprising entrepreneur took over a defunct manufacturer of ballpoint parts and a new ink formula from an unemployed chemist, and started his own company to manufacture a leak proof ballpoint pen. This was the first retractable and leak proof ballpoint pen, which he later named the ‘Papermate’ pen.
During the same period, a Frenchman named Marcel Bich, who was heavily involved in the manufacture of pen cases and penholders, believed that the ballpoint pen was an excellent innovation that had a future, once it was improved a bit. He set about to get the rights from the Biros brothers and then closeted himself for several years studying all the pens he could get his hands on.
His studious efforts led to the development of a clear barreled, not smearing, reliable and inexpensive pen which sold for 19 cents. In naming it, he dropped the ‘h’ from his name and came up with what we all know today as the Bic pen. Like the ‘Papermate’ pen in the U.S. it was a success overseas, grabbing 70% of the market there by the late fifties. Later after acquiring the Waterman Pen Company, the Bic made it to the U.S. market where it became a popular and inexpensive pen in a short period.
The early fifties saw the Parker Pen Company, a manufacturer of excellent fountain pens, make a successful jump into the ballpoint pen arena with the production of their Parker Jotter pen. The Jotter, a stylish looking pen was a smooth writing reliable instrument with a large ink capacity and came in various point sizes.
Dave turned away from me momentarily as the bird finished the pellets and appeared to be seriously thinking about repeating Dave’s last statement to me. The thoughts dissipated as Dave poured some more pellets into the cage and continued.
Dave turned back to me and stated that the ballpoint pen flourished after its comeback in the early fifties and was definitely here to stay now, but as far as he was concerned, he had a fondness for fountain pens. He said they had a certain character that the useful ballpoints could never approach. I agreed with him as I thanked him for the info and he turned back toward the cage as I walked away.
As I made my way passed the other stalls and toward the door I surmised that the ballpoint pe
n sure didn’t have the character of a fine fountain pen but that didn’t take away from the enjoyment of searching for the old ones at flea markets and antique shops and adding them to my collection.
Just as I got to the door I could have sworn I heard the bird say: “Writes the first time, every time.” Then again, maybe it was Dave.

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