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The Ballpoint Pen - What You Need to Know

Welcome back to pen biology 101! After our exciting delve into the mysteries of the fountain pen, we move to the land of the Ballpoint Pen. The ballpoint pen came to commercial existence before the rollerball pen. But why? It makes sense when one learns a little more about it. Let’s learn more about the common ballpoint pen.

The History of the Ballpoint Pen

Early fountain pens had been used for a long time before the ballpoint pen had ever been conceived. The pens wrote well and made one look very fancy. There were a few problems though with this type of pen, however.  A few of the driving forces behind the invention were:

  • Changing the ink was very messy and it had to be done quite often
  • The pens were usually reserved for the upper classes and world-class writers
  • The tips of the pens were very sharp and could tear pages
  • The cost of pens were expensive and not readily available to everyone

These problems were some of the driving force to create a much cheaper and easier alternative.  The stages was then set for the invention of the ballpoint pen.

The first U.S. Patent issued for a ballpoint pen was done by a leather maker in 1888. He wanted a pen that could mark on leather. This was impossible for the fountain pen because the water based ink couldn’t soak into the leather to make permanent marks. His pen included a rough ball at the end of its ink supply. This provided for two significant advantages. First, he was able to add more pressure to his writing without destroying the tip of the pen. This allowed him to push on the leather so that the ink would stay embedded. Secondly, the other had to do with the ball. Because of how coarse it was, the ball could make tiny marks in the leather in which the ink could stick. This pen, however, only wrote on coarse surfaces well. Writing words on paper was near impossible for it.

Many pen makers attempted to make improvements on the already popular fountain pen. Unfortunately, most of these designs failed to make any headway until the idea returned to the metal ball concept. Soon, pen makers were being issued out patents for the ballpoint pen with a metal ball and thin ink cartridges. These pens had the ink latch onto the ball and as the ball rolled it dispensed ink onto the paper. These pens weren’t always reliable. Some of the pens didn’t dispense ink well because the ball couldn’t roll. Others leaked because the gap between the walls of the pen and the ball were too large.

The first modern and commercially available ballpoint pen was sold in 1945 in New York City in Gimbles. Known as The Rocket, it was a copy of a design of a company in Argentina under the name Briome. Since then ballpoint pens have gotten much cheaper and much more reliable.

Types of Ballpoint Pens

There are two types of ballpoint pens: Ballpointius Disposius, or the disposable ballpoint pen, and Ballpointius Refillius, or the refillable ballpoint pen.

Ballpointius Disposius

This is the average run of the mill ballpoint pen. You see these pens in doctor’s offices and on the streets (often run over by a car). For high school students, finding one of these on the ground could save your life when it comes to being prepared for class. This is the most common pen around and usually come in packs of 200 for only $20. Do the math and that comes to about 10 cents a pen! Talk about cheap! They are made mostly of plastic, the only metal being the tip. More pressure is needed to operate these pens since the ball system doesn’t rely on gravity like fountain pens do. This gives the pen leakage protection because of an seal between the ball and the wall. Not only that, they can be capped, retractable, have multiple colors, write notes on your hand, and many more. They take a fair amount of pressure to write with and typically do not last a long time. And, the ink typically does not flow well or have good coverage on the paper.

A suave looking handmade fountain pen
And these pens don’t look very suave, like a fountain pens. Because of their disposability, they tend to lack any significant designs like past fountain pens or the pens I make. They’re also very common which means the 5 cent ballpoint on your desk may also be in the hands of millions!

Ballpointius Refillius

This ballpoint pen is refillable. These come in many shapes and sizes, prices and colors. Most ballpoint pens have some capability to be refilled, but it is a feature that is more prevalent with the more pricy pens. Cross and Parker are both great manufacturers of the high-end ballpoint refills. Mazurka Pens makes custom ballpoint pens that use the Cross and Parker style refills.

Because these pens are refillable, they tend to be higher in quality and have better inks than the disposable kind. Many, however, are still very cheap and dull so there is also a high chance that millions of people have their hands on the same refillable pen.

Physiology of a Ballpoint Pen

There’s really nothing much to the standard ballpoint pen. There are three commonly known varieties: The capped version, the click version, and the twist version. The capped ballpoint pen has a small cap that covers the tip of the pen, typically plastic.  A click version of a ballpoint pen has a small lever at the top of the pen that you push once to engage the tip of the pen, and once to retract the tip of the pen.  The twist version has two pieces that turn in opposite directions to reveal the tip of the pen.

The cartridges / refills have an ink dispensing mechanism that uses a ball as the tip (hence the name ballpoint). This ball can be either metal or ceramic.  The ball turns / rolls when used on paper and it pulls the ink out with it. Using capillary action, the ink runs continuously until the ball is removed from the paper or the ink is used up. Once the ink is used up, either the pen is thrown away or the cartridge is replaced by another.