There are few things more ubiquitous than the ballpoint pen. They have almost no cash value, selling in packs of ten for under $2 but stolen by the millions from workplaces or given away as promotional items. The ballpoint pen is probably the most common item used in our society today. Think about it, you probably have half a dozen at easy arm’s reach while you’re reading this.
That’s what makes the following two facts absolutely amazing:
- The first ballpoint pen to come to America came here in 1945, less than 75 years ago, and
- It cost $9.75, which was a decent day’s salary in those days.
Take the pen
Pens have been around for thousands of years. At one time they were made from sharpened goose feathers and then later from metal. For most of the life of the pen, you had to dip it in ink every few letters. Can you imagine what a drag that must have been? Fountain pens became common in the 19th century but you still had to fill them from ink bottles every so often. They also made a really annoying scratchy sound that anyone over 60 will remember.
Pens in space
Undeniably, the height of pen development came in the 1960s when NASA hired the Fisher company to develop a pen that wrote in space. They developed the Space Pen which you can still buy today. It uses pressurized cartridges that work well in zero gravity. Normal pens rely on gravity to help the ink flow, along with something called the “capillary effect.” For the record, Americans took Space Pens up to the moon 50 years ago and they worked. The Soviet Union, also for the record, has always used pencils.
The most familiar pen
The most common pen in the world, the Bic Cristal, came out in the 1950s and took the world by storm. The basic design was invented by László Bíró, but it was the Bich brothers (who smartly dropped the ‘h’ from the end so it couldn’t be mispronounced) who gave America this little gem. Its reliability and low cost changed the way we write far more than the computer ever could. Take a pen, use it, throw it away, just don’t wash it because then your clothes will get a nasty blue spot. Reliable and easy to use, it doesn’t get much better than a ballpoint pen. But don’t take one for granted, because… someone invented it.