The manufacture of economical, reliable ballpoint pens resulted from a combination of experimentation, modern chemistry and the precision manufacturing capabilities of 20th century technology. Many patents worldwide are testaments to failed attempts to make these pens commercially viable and widely available. The ballpoint pen went through several failures in design throughout its early stages. It has even been argued that a design by Galileo Galilei (during the 17th century), was that of a ballpoint pen.
The first patent on a ballpoint pen was issued on 30 October 1888, to Jack Yax. The pen had a rotating small steel ball, held in place by a socket. Although the pen could be used to mark rough surfaces such as leather, it proved to be too coarse for letter writing and was not commercially exploited.
In the period between 1901 and 1940, there was intense interest in improving writing instruments, particularly alternatives or improvements to the fountain pen. Slavoljub Eduard Penkala invented a solid-ink fountain pen in 1907, a German inventor named Baum took out a ballpoint patent in 1910, and yet another ballpoint pen device was patented by Van Vechten Riesburg in 1916. 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 ink clung to the ball, which spun as the pen was drawn across the paper. These proto-ballpoints did not deliver the ink evenly. If the ball socket was too tight, the ink did not reach the paper. If it were too loose, ink flowed past the tip, leaking or making smears. Many inventors tried to fix these problems, but without commercial success.
László Bíró, a Hungarian newspaper editor, was frustrated by the amount of time that he wasted in filling up fountain pens and cleaning up smudged pages, and the sharp tip of his fountain pen often tore his pages of newsprint. Bíró 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. Since, when tried, this viscous ink would not flow into a regular fountain pen nib, Bíró, with the help of his brother George, a chemist, began to work on designing new types of pens. Bíró fitted this pen with a tiny ball in its tip that was free to turn in a socket. As the pen moved along the paper, the ball rotated, picking up ink from the ink cartridge and leaving it on the paper. Bíró filed a British patent on 15 June 1938.
Earlier pens leaked or clogged due to improper viscosity of the ink, and depended on gravity to deliver the ink to the ball. Depending on gravity caused difficulties with the flow and required that the pen be held nearly vertically. The Biro pen both pressurized the ink column and used capillary action for ink delivery, solving the flow problems.
In 1940 the Bíró brothers and a friend, Juan Jorge Meyne, moved to Argentina fleeing Nazi Germany and on June 10, filed another patent, and formed Bíró Pens of Argentina. The pen was sold in Argentina under the Birome brand (portmanteau of Bíró and Meyne), which is how ballpoint pens are still known in that country. László was known in Argentina as Ladislao José Bíró. This new design was licensed by the British, who produced ball point pens for RAF aircrew as the Biro, who found they worked much better than fountain pens at high altitude.
Eversharp, a maker of mechanical pencils teamed up with Eberhard-Faber in May 1945 to license the design for sales in the United States. At about the same time a U.S. businessman saw a Biro pen in a store in Buenos Aires. He purchased several samples and returned to the U.S. to found the Reynolds International Pen Company, producing the Biro design without license as the Reynolds Rocket. He managed to beat Eversharp to market in late 1945; the first ballpoint pens went on sale at Gimbels department store in New York City on 29 October 1945 for US$12.50 each. This pen was widely known as the rocket in the U.S. into the late 1950s.
Similar pens went on sale before the end of the year in England, and by the next year in most of Europe. Cheap disposable instruments were produced by the BIC Corporation with "Bic" as the tradename (pronounced BiK, not Beak); as with 'Hoover' and 'Xerox', the tradename has subsequently passed into general use. With BIC's expanding product range, the original Bic pen design is now termed the Bic Cristal.
Since 1990, Bíró's birthday (the 29th of September) is Inventor's Day in Argentina.
There are two basic types of ball point pens: disposable and refillable.
Disposable pens are chiefly made of plastic throughout and discarded when the ink is consumed; refillable pens are metal or plastic and tend to be higher in quality and price. The refill replaces the entire internal ink reservoir and ball point unit rather than actually refilling it with ink, as it takes special high-speed centrifugation to properly fill a ball point reservoir with the viscous ink. The simplest types of ball point pens have a cap to cover the tip when the pen is not in use, while others have a mechanism for retracting the tip. This mechanism is usually controlled by a button at the top and powered by a spring within the pen apparatus, but other possibilities include a pair of buttons, a screw, or a slide.
Rollerball pens combine the ballpoint design with the use of liquid ink and flow systems from fountain pens;
Space Pens, developed by Fisher in the United States, combine a more viscous than normal ballpoint pen ink with a gas pressurized piston which forces the ink toward the point. This design allows the pen to write even upside down or in zero gravity environments.
The International Organization for Standardization has published standards for ball point and roller ball pens: ISO 12756:1998: Drawing and writing instruments -- Ball point pens and roller ball pens -- Vocabulary ISO 12757-1:1998: Ball point pens and refills -- Part 1: General use ISO 12757-2:1998: Ball point pens and refills -- Part 2: Documentary use (DOC) ISO 14145-1:1998: Roller ball pens and refills -- Part 1: General use ISO 14145-2:1998: Roller ball pens and refills -- Part 2: Documentary use (DOC)
Ballpoint pens are ubiquitous in modern culture. While other forms of pen are available, ballpoint pens are certainly the most common and almost every household is likely to have several. The fact that they are cheaply available and convenient to use means they are often to be found on desks and also in pockets, handbags, purses, bags and in cars — almost anywhere where one could conceivably need to use a pen. Ballpoint pens are often provided free by businesses as a form of advertising — printed with a company's name, a ballpoint pen is a relatively low cost advertisement that is highly effective (customers will use, and therefore see, a pen on a daily basis). Businesses and charities may also include ballpoint pens in direct mail mailings in order to increase a customer's interest in the mailing.
In recent years, the ballpoint pen has become a popular art medium. The immediacy of results with little or no preparation compared to many other media such as painting and the relative low price of the pens makes it the medium of choice for many modern artists. Some people also create art on themselves with the pens; this is sometimes known as a ballpoint tattoo. Due to this, and to its wide-spread use by schoolchildren, all ballpoint ink formulas are non-toxic, and the manufacturing and content of the ink is regulated in most countries.
Some ballpoint pens are made with multiple ink colors that can be selected by the user.
The most common versions of these are the three-color pen, which has black, blue, and red. Bic has made a four-color pen for a long time that also has green ink. Both of these versions work by the user pressing down on a lever, that will lock in place when it is held to the bottom. It can be released by pressing down partway on a lever of another color.
The past generation has seen the introduction of a 10-color ballpoint pen. Most of these work by pressing down on a lever the same way as one would in a three- or four-color pen, but in order to release the color, a button at the top must be pressed.
Colors that are commonly found in 10-color pens are black, blue, brown, green, orange, pink, purple, red, turquoise, and yellow.
One unusual version of the 10-color pen that was sold during the early 90s at The Nature Company stores had scented ink.
Compared to rollerball and fountain pens, ballpoints require more pressure to write. Ballpoints lack the free flowing supply of ink that both these other types have, and they require the writer to apply a lot more pressure to the page. This is necessary because pushing it starts the flow of ink unlike rollerballs in which the ball is always coated. Making them like this though has benefits, like a lower chance of leakage compared to rollerballs. This robustness also makes them suitable where pressing firmly is required, namely for carbon copy-type forms where a layer of carbon paper transfers the writing, but not the ink, to subsequent copies. In such use other types of pens are quickly damaged beyond usability.
Normal ballpoint pens are widely believed to be unusable in microgravity, e.g. in earth orbit, but that is reported not actually to be the case . They have difficulty writing on surfaces with low adherence (such as plastics, shiny surfaces, and wet or oily surfaces). Due to the pen's reliance on gravity to coat the ball, they can not be used to write upside down; though there are special pens that do work upside-down.