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Ballpoint Pen

A ballpoint pen is a writing instrument which features a tip that is automatically

refreshed with ink. It consists of a precisely formed metal ball seated in a socket below a
reservoir of ink. As the pen is moved along a writing surface, ink is delivered. Even
though ballpoint pens were first patented in the late nineteenth century, they only
started to reach commercial significance in the early 1950s. Now, ballpoint pens
dominate the writing instrument market, selling over one hundred million pens each
year worldwide.

While the idea of a ballpoint pen had been around for many years, it took three different
inventors and almost 60 years to develop this modern writing instrument. The first
patent for this invention was issued on October 30, 1888, to a man named John J. Loud.
His ballpoint pen consisted of a tiny rotating ball bearing that was constantly coated
with ink by a reservoir above it. While this invention worked, it was not well suited for
paper because it leaked and caused smearing. Two other inventors, Ladislas Biro and his
brother Georg, improved on Loud's invention and patented their own version, which
became the first commercially significant ballpoint pen. These pens still leaked, but not
as badly. They became popular worldwide, reaching the height of sales in 1944. The next
year another inventor, Baron Marcel Bich, finally solved the leakage problem and began
manufacturing Bic pens in Paris. Over the years, many improvements have been made
in the technology and quality of the various parts of the pen, such as the ink, the ball, the
reservoir, and the body.

The ballpoint pen was developed as a solution to the problems related to writing with a
fountain pen. Fountain pens require the user to constantly refresh the pen by dipping its
tip in ink. This is not necessary with a ballpoint pen because it is designed with its own
ink reservoir, which uses capillary action to keep the ink from leaking out. At the tip of
the pen is a freely rotating ball seated in a socket. Only part of this ball is exposed; the
rest of it is on the inside of the pen and is constantly being bathed by ink from the
reservoir. Pressing the tip of the pen on the writing surface causes the ball to roll. This
rolling action then transfers ink from the inside of the pen to the writing surface.

While different designs of ballpoint pens are available, many of the components are the
same. Common components include a ball, a point, ink, an ink reservoir or cartridge,
and an outer housing. Some pens are topped with a cap to prevent it from leaking or
having its point damaged. Other pens use a retractable point system for the same
reason. Here a small spring is attached to the outside of the ink reservoir, and when a
button is pushed, the point is either exposed or retracted. Still other varieties of
ballpoint pens have multiple ink cartridges, making it possible to write in different
colors using one pen. Other pens have refillable ink cartridges. One type of pen has a
pressurized cartridge that enables the user to write underwater, over grease, and in

Raw Materials
A variety of raw materials are used for making the components of a ballpoint pen,
including metals, plastics, and other chemicals. When ballpoint pens were first
developed, an ordinary steel ball was used. That ball has since been replaced by a
textured tungsten carbide ball. This material is superior because it is particularly
resistant to deforming. The ball is designed to be a perfect sphere that can literally grip
most any writing surface. Its surface is actually composed of over 50,000 polished
surfaces and pits. The pits are connected by a series of channels that are continuous
throughout the entire sphere. This design allows the ink to be present on both the
surface and interior of the ball.

The points of most ballpoint pens are made out of brass, which is an alloy of copper and
zinc. This material is used because of its strength, resistance to corrosion, appealing
appearance, and ability to be easily formed. Other parts, like the ink cartridge, the body,
or the spring can also be made with brass. Aluminum is also used in some cases to make
the pen body, and stainless steel can be used to make pen components. Precious metals
such as gold, silver, or platinum are plated onto more expensive pens.

The ink can be specially made by the pen manufacturer. To be useful in a ballpoint pen,
the ink must be slightly thick, slow drying in the reservoir, and free of particles. These
characteristics ensure that the ink continues to flow to the paper without clogging the
ball. When the ink is on the paper, rapid drying occurs via penetration and some
evaporation. In an ink formulation, various pigments and dyes are used to provide the
color. Other materials, such as lubricants, surfactants, thickeners, and preservatives, are
also incorporated. These ingredients are typically dispersed in materials such as oleic
acid, castor oil, or a sulfonamide plasticizer.

A 1963 plastic and metal ballpoint pen commemorating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Jr.

(From the collections of Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village.)

Until the advent of the computer, humans have scrambled to find writing instruments to
record story and song. The earliest scribbles were made with a burnt stick in sand. By
the fourth century B.C., the Sumerians used wedge-shaped reed pens to cut pictorial
shapes into clay tablets. Eygptians painted hieroglyphics with brushes made from marsh
reeds and the ancient Chinese wrote with brushes of stiff hair. Ancient Greeks and
Romans sharpened stiff reeds to a point, resulting in chirography that was taut and

The quill pen, made from goose or swan feathers, was favored by writers for over 1,000
years. The soft quill was honed to a point, split at the tip to permit ink to flow freely, and
constantly resharpened. A monumental improvement over the quill pen was Joseph
Gillott's invention of the steel pen nib in the late nineteenth century, which required no
sharpening and could be separated from the pen body and changed as needed. Still, the
writer constantly dipped pen into ink, hoping to avoid drips.

Fountain pens store ink inside a reservoir within the pen, the nib thus supplied with a
constant stream of ink. Alonzo Cross featured a "stylographic pen" with an ink-
depositing needle point in the late 1860s, but blots and smears were still common.
However, the ballpoint pen virtually eradicated messes. Ballpoint pens manufactured
early in the century leaked, skipped, and dropped ink until 1950, when a new ink was
developed that made the ballpoint reliable.

Nancy EV Bryk

Plastics have become an important raw material in ballpoint pen manufacture. They
have the advantage of being easily formed, lightweight, corrosion resistant, and
inexpensive. They are primarily used to form the body of the pen, but are also used to
make the ink cartridge, the push button, the cap, and part of the tip. Different kinds of
plastics are used, based on their physical characteristics. Thermosetting plastics, like
phenolic resins, which remain permanently hard after being formed and cooled, are
typically used in constructing the body, cap, and other pieces. Thermoplastic materials
remain flexible. These include materials like high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and

vinyl resins, which can be used to make most of the pen components.
The Manufacturing
Ballpoint pens are made to order in mass quantities. While each manufacturer makes
them slightly differently, the basic steps include ink compounding, metal component
formation, plastic component molding, piece assembly, packaging, labeling, and
shipping. In advanced shops, pens can go from raw material to finished product in less
than five minutes.

Making the ink

1 Large batches of ink are made in a designated area of the manufacturing plant. Here
workers, known as compounders, follow formula instructions to make batches of ink.
Raw materials are poured into the batch tank and thoroughly mixed. Depending on the
formula, these batches can be heated and cooled as necessary to help the raw materials
combine more quickly. Some of the larger quantity raw materials are pumped and
metered directly into the batch tank. These materials are added simply by pressing a
button on computerized controls. These controls also regulate the mixing speeds and the
heating and cooling rates. Quality control checks are made during different points of ink

Stamping and forming

2 While the ink is being made, the metal components of the pen are being constructed.
The tungsten carbide balls are typically supplied by outside vendors. Other parts of the
pen, such as the point and the body, are made using various molds. First, bands of brass
are automatically inserted into stamping machines, which cut out thousands of small
discs. The brass discs are next softened and poured into a compression chamber, which
consists of a steel ram and a spring-backed ejector plunger. The steel ram presses on the
metal, causing the plunger to retract and forcing the metal into a die cast mold. This
compresses the metal and forms the various pen pieces. When the ram and plunger
return to their original positions, the excess metal is then scraped off and recycled. The
die is then opened, and the pen piece is ejected.

3 The formed pieces are then cleaned and cut. They are immersed in a bath to remove
oils used in the molding process. After they emerge from the bath, the parts are then cut
to the dimensions of the specific pen. The pen pieces are next polished by rotating
brushes and cleaned again to remove any residual oils. The ball can then be inserted into
the point cavity.
Molding the housing

4 The plastic components of the pen are constructed simultaneously with the other pen
pieces. They can be produced by either extrusion or injection molding. In each
approach, the plastic is supplied as granules or powder and is fed into a large hopper.
The extrusion process involves a large spiral screw, which forces the material through a
heated chamber, making it a thick, flowing mass. It is then forced through a die, cooled,
and cut. Pieces such as the pen body and ink reservoir are made by this method.

5 For pieces that have more complex shapes, like caps, ends, and mechanical
components, injection molding is used. In this process the plastic is heated, converting
it into a liquid that can then be forcibly injected into a mold. After it cools, it solidifies
and maintains its shape after the die is opened.

Ink filling and assembly

6 After the components are formed, assembly can take place. Typically, the ballpoint is
first attached to the ink reservoir. These pieces are then conveyored to injectors, which
fill the reservoir with the appropriately colored ink. If a spring is going to be present, it
is then placed on the barrel of the reservoir.

Final assembly, packaging, and shipping

7 The point and reservoir are then placed inside the main body of the pen. At this stage,
other components such as the cap and ends are incorporated. Other finishing steps,
such as adding coatings or decorations or performing a final cleaning, are also done. The
finished pens are then packaged according to how they will be sold. Single pens can be
put into blister packages with cardboard backings. Groups of pens are packed into bags
or boxes. These sales units are then put into boxes, stacked on pallets, and shipped to

Quality Control
The quality of pen components is checked during all manufacturing stages. Since
thousands of parts are made each day, inspecting each one is impossible. Consequently,
line inspectors take random samples of pen pieces at certain time intervals and check to
ensure that they meet set specifications for size, shape, and consistency. The primary
testing method is visual inspection, although more rigorous measurements are also
made. Various types of measuring equipment are available. Length measurements are
made with a vernier caliper, a micrometer, or a microscope. Each of these differ in
accuracy and application. To test the condition of surface coatings, an optical flat or
surface gauge may be used.

Like the solid pieces of the pens, quality tests are also performed on the liquid batches of
ink. After all the ingredients are added to the batch, a sample is taken to the Quality
Control (QC) laboratory for testing. Physical characteristics are checked to make sure
the batch adheres to the specifications outlined in the formula instructions. The QC
group runs tests such as pH determination, viscosity checks, and appearance
evaluations. If the batch is found to be "out of spec," adjustments can be made. For
instance, colors can be adjusted by adding more dye.

In addition to these specific tests, line inspectors are also posted at each phase of
manufacture. They visually inspect the components as they are made and check for
things such as inadequately filled ink reservoirs, deformed pens, and incorrectly
assembled parts. Random samples of the final product are also tested to ensure a batch
of pens writes correctly.

The Future
Ballpoint pen technology has improved greatly since the time of Loud's first patented
invention. Future research will focus on developing new inks and better designed pens
that are more comfortable and longer lasting. Additionally, manufacturers will strive to
produce higher quality products at the lowest possible cost. One trend that will continue
will be the development of materials and processes which use metals and plastics that
have undergone a minimum of processing from their normal state. This should
minimize waste, increase production speed, and reduce the final cost of the pens.


Carraher, Charles, and Raymond Seymour. Polymer Chemistry. Marcel Dekker, 1992.


Peeler, Tom. "The Ball-Point's Bad Beginnings." Invention & Technology, Winter 1996,
p. 64.

Trebilcock, Bob. "The Leaky Legacy of John J. Loud." Yankee, March 1989, p. 141.

—Perry Romanowski

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