In October, 1945, a crowd of around 5 000 people gathered outside the entrance of a New York department store known as Gimbels eagerly waiting for the store to open its doors.
The previous day, according to ideasfinder.com, Gimbels had placed a full page advertisement in the New York Times announcing the first sale of ballpoint pens in the country.
This new pen was depicted as a “fantastic, miraculous fountain pen, guaranteed to write for two years without refilling!”
Gimbels managed to sell its entire stock of 10 000 pens at $12.50 each.
The truth though, this “new” pen had not in fact been new at all and hardly worked any better than its predecessors.
The story begins in 1888 when John Loud, an American leather tanner, patented a roller-ball-tip marking pen. Loud’s invention featured a reservoir of ink and a roller ball that applied the thick ink to leather hides. Loud’s pen, however, was never produced, nor were any of the other 350 patents for ball-type pens issued over the next 30 years.
The major problem had always been the ink. If the ink was too thin the pens leaked, and if it was too thick, they clogged.
Almost 50 years later the Hungarian journalist Laszlo Biro invented the ballpoint pen in 1938.
In 1935 this journalist has been editing a small newspaper and found he spent too much time filling his fountain pens and cleaning up smudges. He was also frustrated by the fact that the nib of the fountain pen would scratch or tear right through the paper he was working on.
Determined to develop a better pen, Biro and his brother Georg, a chemist, started designing and formulating improved ink.
Biro had noticed that the type of ink used in newspaper printing dried quickly, leaving the paper dry and smudge-free. The thicker ink would not flow through a regular pen nib however, prompting the pair to devise a new type of tip.
By fitting his pen with a tiny ball bearing in its tip, Biro managed to get the pen moving along the paper. The ball rotated picking up ink from the ink cartridge and leaving it on the paper.
Historical Outline – The Battle of Ballpoint Pens
The first pen-writing instrument was the quill pen dipped into dark paint. There was 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 60 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 commercialised 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 closed the deal with Eterpen, Chicago businessman, Milton Reynolds visited Buenos Aires. While in a store, he sees the Biro pen and recognises 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 nose-dive. The original asking price of $12.50 dropped to less than 50 cents per pen.
1950: The French Baron called Bich, drops the h. Starts BIC and 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 at $2.95 to $8.75 in less than 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% of European market.
1958: BIC buys 60% of the New York based Waterman Pens.
1960: BIC owns 100% of Waterman Pens. BIC sells ballpoint pens in the U.S. for 29 – 69 cents.
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 worldwide sales figure of 14 million 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 WWII worked. Parker black ballpoint pens will produce more than 28 000 linear feet of writing – more than five miles, before running out of ink.