History of the Pen
Apr 13, 2020
In ancient Egypt scribes used reed pens to write on papyrus. Historically, reed pens, quill pens, and dip pens were used, with a nib dipped in ink.
Ancient Egyptians had developed writing on papyrus scrolls when scribes used thin reed brushes or reed pens from the Juncus maritimus or sea rush. In his book A History of Writing, Steven Roger Fischer suggests that on the basis of finds at Saqqara the reed pen might well have been used for writing on parchment as long ago as the First Dynasty or about 3000 BC. Reed pens continued to be used until the Middle Ages, but were slowly replaced by quills from about the 7th century. The reed pen, generally made from bamboo, is still used by young students in some parts of India and Pakistan to write on small wooden boards.
The reed pen survived until papyrus was replaced as a writing surface by animal skins, vellum and parchment. The smoother surface of skin allowed finer, smaller writing with a quill pen, derived from the flight feather. The quill pen was used in Qumran, Judea to write some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which date back to around 100 BC. The scrolls were written in Hebrew dialects with bird feathers or quills. There is a specific reference to quills in the writings of St. Isidore of Seville in the 7th century. Quill pens were still widely used in the eighteenth century, and were used to write and sign the Constitution of the United States in 1787.
The concept of using a "ball point" within a writing instrument as a method of applying ink to paper has existed since the late 19th century. In these inventions, the ink was placed in a thin tube whose end was blocked by a tiny ball, held so that it could not slip into the tube or fall out of the pen.
The first patent for a ballpoint pen was issued on 30 October 1888 to John J. Loud, who was attempting to make a writing instrument that would be able to write "on rough surfaces — such as wood, coarse wrapping-paper, and other articles" which fountain pens could not. Loud's pen had a small rotating steel ball, held in place by a socket. Although it could be used to mark rough surfaces such as leather, as Loud intended, it proved to be too coarse for letter-writing. With no commercial viability, its potential went unexploited and the patent eventually lapsed.
The manufacture of economical, reliable ballpoint pens as are known today arose from experimentation, modern chemistry, and precision manufacturing capabilities of the early 20th century. Patents filed worldwide during early development are testaments to failed attempts at making the pens commercially viable and widely available. Early ballpoints did not deliver the ink evenly; overflow and clogging were among the obstacles inventors faced toward developing reliable ballpoint pens. If the ball socket was too tight, or the ink too thick, it would not reach the paper. If the socket was too loose, or the ink too thin, the pen would leak or the ink would smear. Ink reservoirs pressurized by piston, spring, capillary action, and gravity would all serve as solutions to ink-delivery and flow problems.
László Bíró, a Hungarian newspaper editor (later naturalized Argentine) frustrated by the amount of time that he wasted filling up fountain pens and cleaning up smudged pages, noticed that inks 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. Bíró enlisted the help of his brother György, a chemist, to develop viscous ink formulae for new ballpoint designs.
Bíró's innovation successfully coupled ink-viscosity with a ball-socket mechanism which acted compatibly to prevent ink from drying inside the reservoir while allowing controlled flow. Bíró filed a British patent on 15 June 1938.
In 1941, the Bíró brothers and a friend, Juan Jorge Meyne, fled Germany and moved to Argentina, where they formed "Bíró Pens of Argentina" and filed a new patent in 1943. Their pen was sold in Argentina as the "Birome" (portmanteau of the names Bíró and Meyne), which is how ballpoint pens are still known in that country. This new design was licensed by the British, who produced ballpoint pens for RAF aircrew as the "Biro". Ballpoint pens were found to be more versatile than fountain pens, especially at high altitudes, where fountain pens were prone to ink-leakage.
Bíró's patent, and other early patents on ballpoint pens, often used the term "ball-point fountain pen".
Today, 50% of U.S. consumers own promotional writing instruments that are imprinted with a logo or message.