When you think about technology, you probably think of things like cell phones, computers, smart home devices and the like. That’s understandable. We’re surrounded by high tech equipment that makes our lives easier.
One think you probably don’t consider is the common pen. It’s just a tube full of ink and a point of some kind, right?
Not quite. It takes a more complex design than you might think to bring your words to life on paper. Let’s take a look at how it happens.
The first writing instruments to use ink were indeed simple. Scholars and scribes used quill pens made from bird feathers sharpened to a point and dipped in ink. With no onboard ink reservoir, the quills made writing a slow process, and there was always potential for spilling ink from inkwells. It didn’t make for a portable writing instrument, either..
Pen technology took a step up in 1827 with the invention of the first fountain pen. Described as a “self-fueling endless portable quill with ink,” it represented a significant advance, despite having ink flow issues. Using a metal nib instead of a sharpened quill, it quickly became the standard for writing instruments.
How A Fountain Pen Works
A fountain pen contains ink in a reservoir inside the pen body. This can be a disposable cartridge or a reusable reservoir. The ink flows, by way of a combination of gravity and capillary action to the nib, a metal point that in turn places the ink onto the paper as you write.
What is capillary action? That’s the way ink is drawn into small tubes within the pen and down to the nib. It’s caused by air entering the reservoir or cartridge – via a slit in the nib — and forcing the liquid ink down.
Next, the ink flows to a collector. That’s the series of grooves on the pen just behind the nib. It keeps the ink from flowing out too quickly. From the collector it flows to the nib and to your page.
The advantage of a fountain pen is a smooth, elegant writing style. It also truly was the first portable way to write in ink.
The fountain pen does have its disadvantages. The water-based ink is relatively slow to dry, which can lead to smeared text and inked hands, particularly for left-handed writers. These pens also require a degree of regular maintenance and cleaning to ensure peak performance. Last but not least, they are prone to leakage due to air pressure changes, such as on aircraft.
Enter the Ballpoint
The ballpoint pen, first patented in 1888, didn’t really come into its own until the middle of the 20th century. The innovations of Laszlo Biro, a Hungarian newspaper editor, led to the popular pen that nearly everyone carries today.
Ballpoint designs existed before Biro began tinkering, but they had problems with ink delivery, because they still used the water-based ink of fountain pens. Biro and his brother Gyorgy developed a more viscous, oil-based ink, similar to newspaper ink.
How a Ballpoint Pen Works
A ballpoint pen uses a simpler mechanism than a fountain pen. Ink flows via gravity from a reservoir tube with a rotating metal ball in a socket at the end. As the ball rotates, it gets covered in ink, which the ball transfers to the writing surface. The ink dries more quickly than fountain pen ink, reducing the likelihood of smudging or smearing, particularly for left-handed writers.
The ball seals tightly enough against the inner diameter of the tube to keep the thicker ink from leaking out when the ball isn’t moving. And unlike fountain pens, ballpoint pens are immune to pressure changes on airplanes.
The Rollerball Alternative
A rollerball pen functions the same way as a ballpoint, but uses a thinner water-based ink. They can offer a smoother, faster writing experience, but are prone to smearing, and can run if a page gets wet.
The BIC Ascendance
In the early 1950s, Baron Marcel Bich bought the patent to Biro’s design, and began producing pens in France. By 1958, the BIC (the baron dropped the H from his name) Crystal pen, a disposable ballpoint with a clear plastic body and a removable cap was selling as low as 29 cents each. As of 2021, it remained the best selling pen in the world, with billions in use around the globe.
Don’t Forget the Click!
What about the retractable pen, the classic “click pen” we all know and love? The Parker Pen Company introduced one of the first in 1954. The simple device is more mechanically complex than you might think.
Inside the pen body are three main parts responsible for the clicks you hear when you extend or retract the pen’s point. They consist of a cam, a tubular plunger and “stop members.”
The cam actually is mounted on the top of the replaceable ink cartridge. As you push the button on top of the pen, the plunger pushes the cam down. With each downward movement – each click — the cam rotates 45 degrees, and sets to either a locked (extended) or released (retracted) position. The stop members hold the cam in place against tension from springs at the top and bottom of the pen. From Click 1 (the first push) to Click 2 (when you release the button) to Click 3 (the push to retract) to Click 4 (the release), the cam rotates a total of 180 degrees.
The retractable mechanism eliminates the need for a separate pen cap that can get lost. It makes it possible to carry the pen in a shirt or jacket pocket, or in a purse, without worrying about leaking ink.
Parker executives were nervous about introducing a ballpoint pen. They were known as a fountain pen company. They needn’t have worried. The Jotter has since sold more than 750 million copies.
Other pen companies developed their own retractable mechanisms to avoid infringing on Parker’s patents. With so many people clicking away every day, you could call them the original fidget device. They exist in a variety of styles today, as do nonretractable pens such as the BIC Crystal with removable caps.
Ultimately, pens are a personal choice. As for using them for promotional products, customized pens are available in fountain pen, ballpoint or rollerball types. And remember, no matter which style you choose, the pen remains mightier than the sword.