The concept of using a ballpoint within a writing instrument as a method of applying ink to paper has existed since the late 19th century. In these inventions, the ink was placed in a thin tube whose end was blocked by a tiny ball, held so that it could not slip into the tube or fall out of the pen.
The first patent for a ballpoint pen was issued on 30 October 1888 to John Loud who was attempting to make a writing instrument that would be able to write on rough surfaces, such as wood, coarse wrapping-paper and other articles which then-common fountain pens could not. Loud’s pen had a small rotating steel ball, held in place by a socket. Although it could be used to mark rough surfaces such as leather, as Loud intended, it proved to be too coarse for letter-writing. With no commercial viability, its potential went unexploited and the patent eventually lapsed.
The manufacture of economical, reliable ballpoint pens as we know them arose from experimentation, modern chemistry and precision manufacturing capabilities of the early 20th century. Patents filed worldwide during early development are testaments to failed attempts at making the pens commercially viable and widely available. Early ballpoints did not deliver the ink evenly; overflow and clogging were among the obstacles inventors faced toward developing reliable ballpoint pens. If the ball socket was too tight, or the ink too thick, it would not reach the paper. If the socket was too loose, or the ink too thin, the pen would leak or the ink would smear. Ink reservoirs pressurized by piston, spring, capillary action and gravity would all serve as solutions to ink-delivery and flow problems.
Laszlo Bíró, a Hungarian newspaper editor frustrated by the amount of time that he wasted filling up fountain pens and cleaning up smudged pages, noticed that inks used in newspaper printing dried quickly, leaving the paper dry and smudge-free. He decided to create a pen using the same type of ink. Biro enlisted the help of his brother Gyorgy, a chemist, to develop viscous ink formula for new ballpoint designs.
Bíró’s innovation successfully coupled ink-viscosity with a ball-socket mechanism, which acted compatibly to prevent ink from drying inside the reservoir while allowing controlled flow. Bíró filed a British patent on 15 June 1938.
In 1941, the Bíró brothers and a friend, Juan Jorge Meyne, fled Germany and moved to Argentina, where they formed Bíró Pens of Argentina and filed a new patent in 1943. Their pen was sold in Argentina as the Birome, which is how ballpoint pens are still known in that country. This new design was licensed by the British, who produced ballpoint pens for RAF aircrew as the Biro. Ballpoint pens were found to be more versatile than fountain pens, especially at high altitudes, where fountain pens were prone to ink-leakage.
Bíró’s patent and other early patents on ballpoint pens often used the term “ball-point fountain pen” (from Wikipedia)