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The library of essays of Proakatemia

The ballpoint pen – an innovation example from the past

Kirjoittanut: Irene Lai - tiimistä SYNTRE.

Esseen tyyppi: Yksilöessee / 2 esseepistettä.

La straordinaria storia della penna a sfera - Da Laszlo Birò all'impero Bich
Giulio Levi
Esseen arvioitu lukuaika on 5 minuuttia.



You have to know the past to understand the present. Only through deeply understanding the time and the needs that we all have is it possible to innovate and create something new or to adapt something already invented for the market. This is the reason I have decided to focus my attention on a non-recent entrepreneur this time but surely one that for the most influenced us, our recent past and still our present.  

Progress has been made since the quill. It is the end of the XIX century, and it is common to use the steel pen that James Perry launched on the market. People are satisfied with it but have also started to consider the idea of giving the pen a reserve of ink so they could write uninterrupted and without needing to refill it too frequently though. The main driver behind the fountain pen’s popularity seems to be the desire to stop constantly moving between paper and inkwell. In fact, the constant supplies limited or slowed down many brains’ ability to express themselves in writing over time. Therefore, it was expected that the race to develop a pen with a reserve of ink that would enable uninterrupted writing would intensify and that the number of patents would rise. Early standard fountain pens used direct filling; after disassembling the nib, the pen’s body served as a reservoir, and a dropper was used to add ink. To use the pen, the nib had to be screwed back onto the barrel. The issue of ink leaks was added to the drawbacks of filling procedures, making the possibility of discoloration commonplace. Sometimes the heat from the hand was sufficient to expand the air in the barrel, changing the equilibrium between internal and exterior pressure, leading to ink spills. Several systems were implemented to address this issue, but none of them proved effective. The market would consequently have welcomed a pen that offered a solution to the staining issue caused by fountain pens; for the entrepreneurs of the time, it had virtually become a necessity. Right at this stage, László Bíró ‘s creativity and intuition enter the scene.
In this essay I will tell his story, his tenacity and his revolutionary idea. 



The Pen. 


The ballpoint pen was created after twenty years of work and experimentation. The creator, a middle-class Hungarian named László Jozsef Bíró, was born on September 29, 1899. Journalist by profession, he used a fountain pen at work that leaked ink and stained the sheets on which he wrote, or the nib became stuck to the paper, at worst shredding it, or the ink simply dried up and prevented him from working. Bíró was aware of the need for a more user-friendly writing tool, but he was also aware that efforts made elsewhere in the world to eliminate these stylistic flaws had not been successful. It is possible that he was aware that an American leather tanner named John Loud had secured a patent in 1888 for a particular sort of pen that employed a sphere on its tip to disperse a thick ink over rough surfaces like wood, leather, and other objects that a regular pen could not be used on. Because it could not be used to write on paper, its potential was not used, and the patent eventually expired. Bíró came up with a comparable mechanism that is formed like a ball in order to solve the shortcomings of the fountain pen and release the ink on the paper quickly and stain-free. According to legend, he saw several kids playing with marbles on the sidewalk and noted that each stone left a mud-stained trail after rolling through a puddle. According to this tale—which Bíró himself would have refuted in his autobiography—the incident served as inspiration for the idea of a writing device that employed a ball that rolled in ink. On the other hand, Bíró himself claims that the inspiration struck him as he was seeing what was happening in the printing facility as his newspaper was being printed. The ink did not leave any stains on the freshly printed newspapers and dried up right away. He also considered an ink that must possess the same properties as the one used for printing while conceiving a sphere that could travel in all directions on the paper. He had to wait though because the Second World War did not assist him in finishing his idea. He lost his job and, in the meantime, contacted various people to secure funding for his idea. He discovered this person in Buenos Aires, where he was able to begin producing a pen, the Eterpen (eternal pen), and then the “Birome,” through funding. Nevertheless, despite the early success, many pens had to be returned because they were flawed. Some had an unsteady stroke, others discolored the sheet or pockets, and still others became clogged when the ink dried. A metal ball with incredibly precise proportions was needed for it to work properly, and only a Swiss manufacturer was able to make it. Finding ink with the proper viscosity was another challenge because the pens only wrote when they were vertical, and the ink was poorly absorbed by the paper. Bíró created a novel model based on the capillary hole theory as a result. The porous sphere served as a metal sponge, facilitating easier ink flow, and allowing the pen to be held both vertically and on a slope. The numerous American pen manufacturing businesses were contacted by the US Department of State to create a comparable one. The Eberhard Faber Company also paid a substantial amount to obtain the authorization to produce ballpoint pens in the United States. It was 1945 and “It was, almost instantly, a must-have accessory. As Time magazine reported, “thousands of people all but trampled one another last week to spend $12.50 each for a new fountain pen” (BBC Future). Consider that that price is over $200 today!
Once the pen was not trendy anymore, sales began to drop and so did the price, but Bíró seemed satisfied with his invention and its success. In 1950, Birò, during a trip to Europe, met the Italian French baron Marcel Bich, interested in his invention, to whom he proposed the sale of his patent. Bich acquired so a factory where he created his company, the BIC society. He invented nothing new, but he did understood the market and the needs of the time. He realized that Bíró priced the pen too high and a task as important as that of writing could not be reserved only for those who could afford it. The cost of Bíró’s pens was actually comparable to that of a fine fountain pen, but it was way too much. It had to be practical, durable and affordable, so in this way, everyone could have benefit from such a revolutionary and useful product. The rest is history. 





Could an innovation product be still so innovative? The answer is yes. This is the ballpoint pen. An example of perseverance, dedication, passion. David Sax, Canadian journalist, says: “The ballpoint pen was the equivalent of today’s smartphone. Before then, writing was a stationary act that had to be done in a certain environment, on a certain kind of desk, with all these other things to hand that allowed you to write.” (BBC Future) A revolutionary invention that made culture more accessible, since it created the idea that writing could have been possible any when and anywhere. Even with the use of smartphones, ballpoint pens can still be found in just about every place.  No matter how much progress humanity will still make, this will remain a milestone that changed forever our way to write, to study, to divulge culture. 





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