Tag Archives: Ballpoint pens

Wallowing in research, or when did that happen, exactly?


I’m in the depths of finishing up my book about a nursing student in Kingston, ON, back at the end of WW2. I’ve got the plot mostly finished, I know where it’s going, I have my characters in place and they are mostly defined, though I’m working on deepening their portrayal.

But I keep getting distracted.

The other day I was writing about charting, as in recording medical records. It’s unlikely they’d be done in pencil, since they could be too easily changed that way. Did they have ball point pens at the time?

1950’s pen ad

It turns out, no they didn’t. The excellent Wikipedia (please donate) brought me to links about the Hungarian inventor, László Bíró, who noticed that newspaper inks dried faster and didn’t smear as much as regular ink, and created the first Biro. There was a previous design but it wasn’t fluid enough to use for writing on paper and so languished.

This was in 1931. The war intervened and Biro fled to Argentina, and subsequent development was vastly slowed. In 1945, Marcel Bich bought the patent and started with his Bic pens. He started manufacturing the steel balls for the pen tips, and apparently they are essentially the same construction now.

Back at the start, the pens were used for airmen, who found fountain pens leaked at altitude. They were seriously expensive, the first models at around $1000 our money, later ones still selling for $188. It wasn’t until 1954, when Parker got into the business, and competition lowered the price, that they started being ubiquitous.

So then I had to wonder about what sort of pens might have been used in hospitals at the time. Would they be pen and ink? Or fountain pens? Could the hospitals at the time afford fountain pens? Or would they just provide inkwells and cheap nibs everywhere?

And how did nursing students keep their aprons pristine while dealing with blotchy pens?

That led to another research hunt. Nursing students at the time sent their uniforms, aprons, bibs, cuffs, and caps to a local laundry. But my character gets bounced out of nursing school to work as a nurses’ aide. Where does she get her uniforms cleaned?

It’s like a link of puzzles, and at some point I am going to have to decide that’s enough, you don’t need that detail…

But it’s all so fascinating. I suspect by the end of writing this book I’ll have enough information for another. And that’s a good thing…I think!