Yes, there was a time before the ballpoint pen. The first American one was sold in Gimbel’s department store in 1945. Many people contributed to the development, including Galileo, but it was Lazlo Biro, a newspaper editor, who used newspaper ink in a cartridge with a ball-socket in 1938. Ballpoints are called Biros in the UK, Australia and Argentina.
There is an interesting story about an American who went to Argentina, purchased a pen, and produced it in the U.S. . . .without notifying anyone in Argentina. Presumably, this is the precursor of the Orphan Bill in Copyright law, but I am getting way ahead of myself.
Before the ballpoint pen was invented, people had the choice of pen or pencil to write. Pens needed to be refilled, smeared on cheap papers, and tore soft or cheap papers. Pencils didn’t smear, could be used on different kinds of papers, and, best of all, could push down hard enough to make a copy using carbon paper. But a pencil was erasable. What was needed was a writing instrument that could be pushed down without tearing the paper and left a permanent mark.
Perhaps, if you watch old movies, you remember the codger in the green eyeshade. Bent over his paper, he studied the books, licked his pencil, and wrote in the ledger. I always thought it was the lead or graphite that was dried out. But no. My brother remembered what I did not: there were once indelible pencils. Because he is older than I am, he used them in his first job as a teenager.
Even more interesting, the ink pencil is back. Sort of. The pencil my brother used contained aniline ink, which, when licked, leaves a purple pencil mark that can’t be erased. Used to write in ledgers as well as sales receipts, the permanent pencil was useful in retail stores, like the one my brother worked in. The lead had a purple sheen to it, my brother remembers.
In the art world, the ink pencils are really water-color pencils. Made by Derwent, the Inktense pencils give a look of inkwash when used.
Everything old is new again. True of bell-bottoms, wide white belts, palazzo pants and, now, permanent pencils.
—Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach. She teaches writing, both to businesses and to invidividuals, as raw-art-journaling, a method of art journaling for people who don’t know how to draw.