[Posted on L&P on Aug 2, 2006, and June 26, 2007.]
The First Ball-Pointed Pen isn’t what you think it is. You probably thought I was going to dredge up the old, familiar saw about Loud’s 1888 ballpoint in US patent no. 392,046 being the first ballpoint. But the patent I’m really referring to is Hezekiah Hewitt’s US patent no. 295,395. It was a steel nib with a curved point “to provide a smooth and flexible curved writing-surface”, or tip, and they were marketed under the name “Ball-Pointed Pens”. Also see Hewitt’s UK patent no. 429 in 1883 , and US trademark no. 32,598.
This also isn’t about the Biro, or the Bich, or the Reynolds patents from the 1940s and 1950s being the first ballpoints. One of the many “first” commercially successful ballpoints is not what you expect, if you’re American, that is, the Reynolds “Rocket”, but it is what you expect if you’re from Britain, or “the continent”. It’s the “Biro” in US patent no. 2,258,841. Biro preceded Reynolds by about 3 or 4 years, but there are many ballpoint patents that preceded the Biro, and many that came after it. However, in Europe “a Biro” has almost become synonymous with a ballpoint, in the same way that “an Eversharp” has become synonymous with a mechanical pencil in the US. The name was co-opted by the public in the same way that trademarked names such as Celluloid, Linoleum, Kleenex, and Aspirin were taken over. The capitol letter was turned into a lower case letter, and the companies lost control of their words. There’s an article about this in The American Stationer, Sept 25, 1920, p.22. “If the public chooses to adopt your trade name as a generic term to refer to all articles of the same sort, the public is pretty likely to have its way about it.” The name “Celluloid” was a coined-name trademark that was the exclusive property of the Celluloid Co., but “The dear public applied that name to the substance wherever it was found, quite irrespective of its origins. The public”, so to speak, “took the bit in its teeth and ran away with the whole load of apples”. Large-c “Celluloid” becomes small-c “celluloid”, and the company is at the mercy of the public, and has no say in the matter.
But here’s the goofy thing about almost all of these leaky, smudgy, undependable, early ballpoint pens, the ones with the ink that wouldn’t dry. The patents for almost all of them refer to the instrument as a “Fountain Pen” in the title of the patent. They sometimes even refer to the ball-tip as a “nib”. Now, that’s really quaint. Yeah, and annoying, too. It was such a new thing that they didn’t know what to call it yet, in order to differentiate the ballpoint from the true fountain pen, so they used the same old name for it. It leads to such bastardizations as “Fountain Pen Of The Ball Point Type” in US patent no. 2,592,406. The problem was compounded by the fact that most of these early ballpoints filled directly into the barrel like fountain pens, instead of having their own proprietary refills. This went on from 1941 until well into the 1950s, when the problematic ballpoint finally became more dependable and quite ubiquitous. Then, finally, it got its own name, usually “Ball Point Writing Instrument”, or “Ball-Point Pen”, or “Ball-Tipped Pen”, or some variation on that. I call it simply a ballpoint, simply and unceremoniously and with no respect. You see, this is what a “Fountain Pen Ballpoint” should look like, US patent no. 2,487,340, maybe. The nib looks like the nose of a proboscis monkey.
Edward Howland posted on Sept 15, 2011 that he was listening to a vintage radio program, an episode of Dragnet from the early 50’s, and a certain piece of evidence in the case was referred to as a “ball point fountain pen”. It caught his attention, and he wondered just what sort of writing instrument they were talking about. “The characters apparently saw nothing unusual in the terminology”, he added. That usage is a nice find. It occurs in just the right era for this kind of early, mixed-up terminology, a time when the consensus of opinion hadn’t yet finalized the terms and settled upon those with which we are now familiar. It’s too bad that all those early radio and television show scripts have not been digitized and placed online in a word-searchable form, otherwise a lot more of those kinds of gems would be turning up.
But I’ll have no truck with the ballpoint. As the character Peter Engel in Monique Genuist’s novel Racines de sable also says, “The ballpoint pen has killed the art of calligraphy in everyday handwriting”, meaning that it has killed the calligraphic quality of everyday writing. This is what the ballpoint should have been called, “Writing instruments of the ball tip type”.