The story of the ballpoint pen

Originally published at:

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for future reference, articles like this are the reason i keep coming back to boingboing, not poorly sourced hatchet-jobs on the recently dead by people with an agenda.


Andy Rooney once commented after a trip to the Soviet Union that given what he had experienced from their ball-point pens, he didn’t imagine their ICBM’s were very good either.

Not sure if this was before or after he told everyone to get off his lawn.


Back in the 60s and 70s, travelers to the Soviet bloc and to third-world nations were advised to carry small goodwill gifts that the locals would appreciate. Ballpoint pens appeared on all the lists.


I recall a BYTE magazine issue ca. 1985 covering USSR computer technology. At the time, mainstream hard discs included lists of ‘bad’ sectors to avoid. Soviet CPUs then came with lists of instructions to avoid per individual CPU. Don’t try to add, comrade!

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Modern fountain pens aren’t awful. I have a $15 “fountain” pen and I like the way it writes, if not the looks of the pen. It’s a LAMY Vista, and it uses a cartridge of ink that you pop in. It can be a bit messy if you’re not reasonably careful with it. But a ballpoint is pretty much foolproof. I haven’t had one explode in my pocket for years- decades probably.


Pre-modern fountain pens were not so tidy. And inkwells could spill. Yikes.

Ballpoints – still my fave type of ink-based writing implement. I like the oiliness of the ink. Parker Jotter is a great intro!

no love for pencils?

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Yes, there’s no demand for fountain-pen-neck geeks.

A few years back, China managed to make their first ‘good’ ballpoints. Creating the ball itself requires a blend of metelurgy and precision manufacturing.

You want some of Frauenfelder’s other posts if you want to meet the pencil geeks:


I recently refilled my #2 technical fountain pen and started drawing with it again after two or three decades. I really miss the Rapidographs that looked like fat fountain pens and clipped in your pocket, where they just mi-i-ight decide to let a little ink out. That’s not what I came for, though, but to post this gem from National Lampoon’s Ed Subitzky, back in the good old days:


I recently got a Pentel GraphGear 1000 mechanical pencil, and have to say this it is AWESOME. And very reasonably priced! This and a Parker Jotter and I’m good to go. :slight_smile:

Yeah, Iˋve never really gotten the hate for fountain pens. They can be leaky and the ink can smear but quite frankly that’s at least equally true of crappy biros.

Neither have I but then I don’t keep pens in my pocket (what am I some kind of geek?). No, I have ink-stained corners in my messenger bag where the naughty ballpoints hold their orgies.

Also - nice to see that the American history of the ballpoint is yet another example of the historic US contempt of other countries’ intellectual property. The company that wanted to pay the inventor for a licence lost out to the company that produced a quick knockoff with the serial numbers filed off.

It’s something that always tickles me when I hear someone waffling on about the Chinese stealing US intellectual property. They do of course but when it’s a US politician or businessman going on about it, I just think of Charles Dickens and, well, the majority of British invention of the Industrial Revolution.

Or Tolkein of course. Being ripped off isn’t always a bad thing- Paging Cory…


The history of the pencil is also fascinating.

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Let’s not pretend that the US was immune from that.


are you a fan of james thurber?

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2x3=5.9998 on a Pentium of that era. My old 386+387 AT worked better. I paid big bucks for that 387 too! And my ‘pen’ managed OCR. Them was the days, before affordable page scanners.


I am aware of him, but I do not know much about him.

sorry, there’s a short story he wrote in which a person responding to an outrageous bore tries to take an interest in his conversation and at one point declaims, “it must be fascinating to collect pencils.”

it made me wonder if you were referring to that.

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