100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

Ballpoint Pen

Year of Invention: 1938

What Is It? A writing device that dispenses ink with a small, rolling ball
locked into the tip of an ink cartridge.

Who Invented It? Ladislas and Georg Biro (in Hungary)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Ballpoint pens are the most recent invention in the string of four principal writing devices. Collectively, these inventions have made writing possible. You can’t write without something to write with. Without a writing implement, there can be no mass literacy and no education system. No child ever learned to write without a pencil or crayon in hand. No business or store functions without a supply of pens. A pen is now the most basic and personal means to record and share any idea, emotion, thought, opinion, note, request, or information. A literate and democratic society relies on an open and constant exchange of ideas, and that still requires pens.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

The ballpoint pen follows three other notable writing inventions—quill pens, fountain pens, and pencils. Quill pens made from the tail feathers of birds date back to the dawn of humanity. Dip the quill tip in ink and it will carry enough ink for a few words before you have to dip again. However, quill pens were fragile, didn’t last long, and tended to leave blobs of ink to smear across the page. Writers switched to metal tips (called nibs) for pens as early as the sixteenth century. However, available ink tended to quickly corrode most metal nibs, and quills still dominated writing until steel, corrosive-resistant nibs appeared in 1829.

In 1832, American John Parker invented the first “self-filling” (fountain) pen. An eye dropper squirted ink into the hollow barrel of the pen, and gravity pulled ink through a tiny hole and onto the nib. Thus began the Parker Pen Company. American inventor Lewis Waterman improved on Parker’s design and, in 1884, was the first to use the term “fountain pen” with the claim that his pen held “a fountain of ink.”

Fountain pens still suffered from the messy problems of frequent blotting and ink spills. The hands and clothes of writers grew black with ink.

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