In The Atlantic, Josh Giesbrecht postulates that our penmanship went south in parallel with the rise of the ballpoint pen:
Recently, Bic launched a campaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.
The creation story of the ballpoint pen tends to highlight a few key individuals, most notably the Hungarian journalist László Bíró, who is credited with inventing it. But as with most stories of individual genius, this take obscures a much longer history of iterative engineering and marketing successes. In fact, Bíró wasn’t the first to develop the idea: The ballpoint pen was originally patented in 1888 by an American leather tanner named John Loud, but his idea never went any further. Over the next few decades, dozens of other patents were issued for pens that used a ballpoint tip of some kind, but none of them made it to market.
These early pens failed not in their mechanical design, but in their choice of ink. The ink used in a fountain pen, the ballpoint’s predecessor, is thinner to facilitate better flow through the nib—but put that thinner ink inside a ballpoint pen, and you’ll end up with a leaky mess. Ink is where László Bíró, working with his chemist brother György, made the crucial changes: They experimented with thicker, quick-drying inks, starting with the ink used in newsprint presses. Eventually, they refined both the ink and the ball-tip design to create a pen that didn’t leak badly. (This was an era in which a pen could be a huge hit because it only leaked ink sometimes.)
The Bírós lived in a troubled time, however. The Hungarian author Gyoergy Moldova writes in his book Ballpoint about László’s flight from Europe to Argentina to avoid Nazi persecution. While his business deals in Europe were in disarray, he patented the design in Argentina in 1943 and began production. His big break came later that year, when the British Air Force, in search of a pen that would work at high altitudes, purchased 30,000 of them. Soon, patents were filed and sold to various companies in Europe and North America, and the ballpoint pen began to spread across the world.