In Praise of the Ballpoint

Or at least an honest assessment…

If you’re fond of fountain pens you may well avoid ballpoints. Indeed many express a hatred of them and refuse ever to use them. I reserve my hatred for more worthy targets but I don’t use ballpoints now.

They have a long history in Britain, being adopted by the RAF during WWII because of their convenience and permanence. Those first reliable ballpoints were sold under the name Biro which remains the usual name for a ballpoint in the UK. When they first went on commercial sale they resembled the fountain pens of the day, with a threaded cap and usually a gold plated clip.

Soon however, ballpoints broke free from the influence of the fountain pen with the development of the ‘clicky’ retractable point. As demand rose so did competition and the ballpoint’s price fell from its luxury writing instrument level by a long way.

The Bic, of course, revolutionised both ballpoint sales and the view of it presently held, as a very cheap and completely disposable note-taker. It is as a note-taker that the ballpoint is most successful. When I worked in an office there was always a Bic on the desk, capless as the cap had been discarded as unnecessary because a Bic doesn’t dry out in normal use. It was instantly ready to take a note in a way that no fountain pen can ever be, not even the Pilot Capless.

When a longer spell of handwriting is required – something not often called for in the modern office – the ballpoint fails. Its design demands that it be held vertically and pressure must be applied. This leads to discomfort quite quickly. In this situation the fountain pen does a far better job as does the felt tip or gel pen.

Bics dominate the ballpoint market to a huge extent but there are other very cheap pens which some favour. Also there are those committed ballpoint users who want something ‘better’ and more permanent. Most of those companies that make fountain pens also make high quality ballpoints. Those pens are not disposable and take replacement refills. Like the fountain pen, expensive ballpoints are a niche market.

There are situations that demand a ballpoint – some documents are quite specific about that. Should I come across one of those I would be at a loss; there isn’t a ballpoint in the house!

The fountain pen had completely lost its place as the pen of business by 1955. Managers, lawyers and doctors hung onto it for a bit longer – some still prefer it. The fact that the fountain pen is an altogether better writing instrument is of no consequence. The Bic writing stick and similar ballpoints ruled the day for a long time and even their use is in decline in today’s digital office.


7 thoughts on “In Praise of the Ballpoint

  1. Deb, you might be interested to read, (if you haven’t read already) Ink: Culture, Wonder, and Our Relationship with the Written Word by Ted Bishop. The first chapter dwells on Biro and Bic….

  2. All too true> I used one at work, but when it was a matter of easy legibility I always preferred a fountain pen. The line is so much clearer (at least with my handwriting.)

  3. If ever you are required to call a non-fountain pen into service, might I suggest trying out a really good pen instead of a Bic? I particularly like the Uni-Ball Signo DX, the Uni-Ball Jetstream, and the Pentel Energel. They’re not fountain pens, but these were my staples for handwritten examinations where the paper quality was unpredictable, and I still maintain a small stock of them for occasions where a fountain pen may not be the most appropriate writing instrument.

    I wish you a belated happy new year, and would like to thank you for continuing to write this blog and restore wonderful vintage pens. I enjoy reading your posts, and using the lovely writers I’ve purchased from you 🙂

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