Technology Is Everywhere

Even seemingly humble items have technology applied to them. This article looks a one example.

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 This story appeared in a publication sent to me from Mikron Corp. It caught my eye so I received permission to share it with you this month.

    Although conceived in the first half of the last century, its achievements improve with age. It’s a common instrument that celebrates 70 years in 2008. It has a life expectancy of more than 10,000 meters with amazing reliability along with impressively consistent performance. Yes, we’re talking about the ball point pen.

    It has become such a commodity that even though we use it every day, we take its excellent writing, non-smearing nib as much for granted as running water. And yet, like so many common items, the ball point pen is a technical masterpiece.

    In 1938 Hungarian brothers László and Georg Biró created the first ball point pen with a color ink cartridge and rolling ball. However, a few more years would pass before demands of World War II would justify serial production of the ball point pen.

    Businessman Henry George Martin, came across the ball point pen in 1944 and realized it was an ideal writing tool for military air crews. He bought the patent rights from Mr. Biró in order to set up the first ball point pen factory.

    The enterprise delivered 30,000 ball point pens to the Royal Air Force that first year. The cost of the new pen in 1945 was $8.50, which was equivalent to 50 working hours at that time. This was truly a luxury item. Moreover, they didn’t work all that well, as quality standards were not close to today’s.

    Smudge-free ball point pens came on the scene in 1950 when Marcel Bich began his mass production operation. Yes, he marketed his pen under the name BIC. Thanks in large part to his efforts, today we can purchase a good quality ball point pen for only a few cents.

    So what makes a perfect ball point pen stand out? When the pen sweeps over the paper, the ball should turn and, in the process, pick up ink on one side and dispense it to the paper on the other side. Along with the chemical composition of the ink, which cannot be too thick or thin and must dry instantly, much of a pen’s quality depends on the consistency and precision of the nib and ball.

    Ball sizes range from 0.3 to 1.6 mm with a roundness spec of 0.5 micrometers. That corresponds to slicing a human hair 100 times. Additionally, the nib must also be machined to micrometer tolerances. In a quality pen, the precise fit and finish of these three elements—ink, ball and nib—delivers a writing instrument that lasts for miles.

    Mikron transfer machines make 9 out of 10 ball point pen nibs in circulation. In less than 6 seconds, 20 different machining steps are applied and transform wire feed stock into the final nib shape. Each minute, 100,000 pieces are produced globally.

    I know I now have a better appreciation of my handy dandy ball point pen.