Appreciation for the ball point pen

Published 7:30 am Saturday, February 26, 2022

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Can you think of anything handier than a ball point pen?

One of my prized possessions as an elementary grade student was a fountain pen. Today, the fountain pen has just about disappeared. I seldom used one, but I haven’t forgotten how I needed an ink bottle handy so I could replenish the pen when it was almost empty. That was a real aggravation.

Today everyone, including former fountain pen users like me, take the ball point pen for granted. These self-contained little instruments roll around in the bottom of women’s purses; they fit neatly in little slots in our billfolds;  they rest in bunches in holders on our desks; they ride in men’s shirt pockets, and are transferred from a grocery cashier’s hand to yours by mistake after you borrow one to write a check.

I appreciate ball point pens but, at the same time, there are a couple of things about them that disturb me. Sometimes they refuse to make a mark or give out of ink right in the middle what you are writing. You can try rolling them in your hands but most of the time it is to no avail.

Something really annoying is how they leak in the seams of shirts and make weird figures on other parts of clothing.

There is nothing I can do about the first problem I mentioned except toss the pen and reach for another. As far as tackling the stains, I reach for a can of cheap hair spray on the shelf above my washing machine, then apply a spray or two with a bit of rubbing to make the stain disappear.

Have you ever wondered how this modern miracle, the ball point pen originated? To me, it was a surprise when I found out it was not an American invention. A Hungarian hypnotist, sculptor and journalist, was taken with the idea of a quick-drying ink when he visited printers while editing a cultural magazine. From 1938 until 1940, he developed a prototype of the ball point and patented it in 1943in Argentina where he fled because of the war.

Henry Martin, an Englishman, noted that the ball point pen was not affected by changes in air pressure or atmosphere. He realized that it could be used by air crews making calculations at high altitude. He acquired British rights to the pen and produced 30,000 for the Royal Air Force in 1944.

An American patented it in the United States and put it on the market in 1945. It commanded immediate success. On Oct. 29, Gimbril’s of New York sold nearly 10,000 for $12.50 each.

According to The Book of Firsts by Patrick Robinson, sales of the first successful “throw away” ball point pen reached 53 million in 1959.