Over the years, we’ve explored vast swaths of Pelikan’s fountain pen landscape and true connoisseurs of the writing experience will accept no substitute. More recently, we ventured off of the beaten path, taking a sojourn into a world of ballpoints and mechanical pencils. I considered leaving it there but, I am a completist at heart and could not rest easy knowing that I neglected an entire category of wiring instrument. They may not go clickity-clack like their cousins, but rollerballs deserve some love too. Rollerballs aren’t too dissimilar from their ballpoint brethren, both employing a ball-in-socket type mechanism but, it is in the execution that they vary. You might best conceive of the rollerball as a hybrid between both a fountain pen and a ballpoint which may just make them the next best choice in your arsenal of writing implements provided you understand their limitations. They are actually the youngest of Pelikan’s fine writing crew, now just a spry 32 years old, which means there aren’t any truly vintage examples from Pelikan to speak of. That makes sense since this technology didn’t exist in the first place until 1963/64 and it wasn’t employed by Pelikan until 1990. This article will be the final act in what has been my sincerest attempt at expanding your writing utensil horizons. The rollerball, by virtue of its youth, has perhaps the least voluminous history to wade through though it is no less interesting. Cap your fountain pens, retract your ballpoints, and sheath your lead. It’s time to roll out and learn all about rollerballs.
The original Souverän Rollerball, the R400 (1982-90)
Many references actually classify rollerballs as a sub-category of ballpoints given their reliance on the same technology which is both fair and somewhat misleading given the fundamental differences in their execution. It should be noted that there exist both liquid and gel type rollerballs, but this article will focus only on the former. It is a design that originated in Japan, first created by what is now the OHTO company. Tozaburo Nakata was a government employee in the Ministry of Finance who devised a special type of ink which he intended for use with banknotes. Because of the conflict of interest this created, he ultimately ended up leaving his position within the ministry. He would go on to establish the Nakata Okha Do company in 1919, originally focused on manufacturing dyes and inks. War would ravage the island nation with the end of World War II bringing about the American occupation of Japan. This had the unintended consequence of introducing the newfangled ballpoint pen to that culture, a technology that was just starting to come into its own. Japan proved no different than other locales and excitement over the new product grew. The ballpoint must have seemed horribly futuristic, requiring neither the frequent refilling of the fountain pen nor the constant sharpening of the pencil. This technology inspired Mr. Nakata to turn his attention to the manufacture of ballpoints which he began in earnest in 1949. For his design, he emulated the look of a pencil, thereby creating the “Auto-Pencil.” Japan’s first homegrown ballpoint was a success. Nakata Okha Do would subsequently change its name to the Auto company, emulating the moniker of its flagship product. Additional innovations in ballpoint technology would follow including the first of its kind smudge free ballpoint, first ever use of the tungsten carbide ball, and the first ever transparent refill. Mr. Nakata would receive a medal from the Emperor of Japan in 1957 for his contributions towards improving ballpoint technology.
Rollerballs that have been a part of Pelikan’s Classic or Traditional series. Gray-Magenta Marbled R200 (1994), Snakeskin R200 (1995), and Black-Dark Green R250 (2003-05)
Mr. Nakata was not content to simply rest on the laurels of the Auto-Pencil’s success. He had a drive for innovation and questioned how the ballpoint could be further improved upon. Informing that response was a desire to combine the feel and smoothness of a fountain pen with the ease and practicality of the ballpoint. By 1964, he had come up with a solution and, in so doing, created a whole new product category. His “rollerball” used the same ball-in-socket design as the ballpoint which consisted of an ink containing shaft capped off by a small ball which would roll ink onto the paper. Where the two products differed was in the chemistry of the ink used which imparted wildly different properties. Mr. Nakata’s rollerball used a significantly less viscous, water-based ink than the ballpoint’s thicker, oil-based solution. The result was a more rapid, free flowing ink which provided an overall smoother, high performance writing experience. Consequently, the rollerball required less pressure to write cleanly than a ballpoint which reduced stress on the hand, improved comfort, and facilitated a quicker writing pace. The design would gain traction and popularity throughout the 1970s though never realized the same fame that the fountain pen or ballpoint had enjoyed at their peak. By 1974, the Auto company would again change its name to the OHTO company that we know today in order to avoid confusion with the automotive industry.
Past articles on this blog have taught us that Pelikan ventured into manufacturing fountain pens in 1929. Next, they added mechanical pencils to their repertoire in 1934. Following that, along came ballpoints in 1955. When it comes to writing implements, Pelikan is rarely first to market with a new product, often times taking decades to introduce a solution of their own to a more mature market. The rollerball is no exception as it doesn’t join the company’s product line-up until 1990 which makes it the most modern pen in Pelikan’s catalogue today. Pelikan’s own promotional literature from the time was cognizant of that fact stating; “It took us 60 years to introduce a Pelikan Rollerball. It was worth the wait.” Advertisements dating to the initial product launch were rife with such grandiose claims emphasizing that the company may not have been first to the rollerball market, but they were certainly intent on being one of the best. “It takes time to reach perfection. That’s why we weren’t the first to introduce a rollerball pen. But with the new Souverän Rollerball, we may have the last word,” one such write-up exclaimed. A campaign targeting Christmas shoppers was rolled out in November and December 1990 in the U.S.A. Ads would run in magazines such as the Smithsonian, Esquire, House & Garden, Forbes, Travel & Leisure, and Art & Antiques. The ad was intended to generate consumer demand with a reach of over 18 million people, targeting 57% of households nationwide with an annual income over $75,000.
Referred to in Germany as a “Tintenroller,” rollerballs would at first be added to models from both the Classic and Souverän series of pens, their series number being preceded by an “R” (e.g. R200, R400, R600, and R800). The Black/Green R400 came first in 1990, joining the M400 fountain pen that launched in 1982. The Black/Green and Black R800 and R600 would follow in 1991. Keep in mind that the M800 was only a baby at this point, having launched just four years earlier. A Black R200 would be introduced the following year in 1992. The R400 initially had a suggested retail price of $99.95 which would be $226.60 in today’s dollars, adjusted for inflation. Its current US MSRP is $360 with a retail price of $288.00. In all cases, Pelikan’s rollerballs take the same form as their fountain pen counterparts. Their furniture and finishes are an exact match such that the two can seldom be told apart when capped. The cap tops on older models were color coded as an indicator as to whether or not it was a rollerball or fountain pen in order to quickly dispel any confusion. That convention has since been abandoned. Rather than house a piston assembly, the shaft of the rollerball is hollow, topped by a blind cap at the rear which unscrews to allow for a new ink cartridge to be inserted. The R800 added heft in the absence of a piston assembly by utilizing a solid brass fitting at the refill knob. In place of the nib, at the end of the section, is a cone from which the rollerball tip would emerge.
While styled similarly, the cap tops of Pelikan’s fountain pens and rollerballs were colored differently in order to indicate the type of writing implement and facilitate ease of use. The left shows the a cap top logo from the M400 fountain pen filled in green and on the right you have the gray filled logo of an R400 rollerball
It was touted that the write-out of the Souverän Rollerball could cover the equivalent length of eight football fields (800 yards) before running dry. Within Pelikan’s silver colored stainless steel ink cartridge resides a ceramic ball that helps facilitate a “glass-like” writing experience. Pelikan’s rollerball refill is designated the #338 and is available in only blue or black ink formulations. Available widths include fine (0.8mm), medium (1.0mm), and broad (1.2mm). Pelikan’s refill has a length of 111.1mm and is a proprietary size and shape. That means most standard rollerball refills from third party manufacturers will not fit, leaving few acceptable aftermarket solutions. Those who repair these pens have encountered issues with unsupported third party refills resulting in irreparable damage so care should be taken if venturing beyond Pelikan’s own offerings. I believe that only Monteverde manufacturers a direct substitute for this refill, product SKU K23 and K24 (merely an observation and not an endorsement).
The Pelikan rollerball is refilled by unscrewing the knob at the back of the barrel and then inserting the #338 refill
While initially only available in Black/Green and Black finishes, the company subsequently branched out from there. Over the years, some lines were expanded while others were reduced. Today, the Classic series no longer counts rollerballs amongst the available options for purchase. As it stands, Pelikan’s current line-up incorporates rollerballs into their Souverän, Pura, Stola, and Twist products. The company’s 2022 catalog details 17 rollerballs of various sizes and finishes in the Souverän line alone. For whatever reason, rollerballs have never seemed to capture the imagination like ballpoints did or carry the gravitas that fountain pens do. Perhaps it is due to their youth or their reduced visibility and scarce marketing today that has resulted in their lack of impact. Schreibgeräte, a text considered to be the authority on the Pelikan brand, barely mentions rollerballs in more than a fleeting sentence.
R400, R600, and R800
R400, R600, and R800
R405 and R805
R400 and R600
R405 and R805
R400, R600, and R800
R405 and R805
Pelikan’s self-promotion notwithstanding, the rollerball product sounds like there should be a lot to like and it is a great compromise between two strong writing implements. Perhaps the real reason that it never achieved the same levels of popularity as either the fountain pen or the ballpoint is because the rollerball is not without its drawbacks. One negative is the potential for bleed through on paper due to the lower viscosity of the ink which can also result in blotting if the tip is left on the paper in just one spot. Because they do expel more ink while writing, rollerballs tend to run dry much more quickly than their ballpoint brethren making them a less economical choice. The extra volume of ink put down by the tip can lead to smudging if you don’t allow time for the ink to dry properly. This makes rollerballs particularly challenging for left handed writers who are generally well advised to look elsewhere. If you have yet to surmise, there is also a good reason why there aren’t many twist or click mechanism rollerballs. Just like fountain pens, the tip needs to be kept out of the air when not in use to prevent drying out therefore most, but not all, rollerballs will have a cap. There also exist an inability to shade with a rollerball which makes these poorly suited for the needs of artists. Drawbacks aside, those who experience regular hand cramping or fatigue while writing may well find some therapeutic benefit with a rollerball and, when combined with thicker paper of a little better than average quality, the experience can be next level. That is why these models generally cater to a very specific and discerning enthusiast. Visconti says it well when they put the ballpoint forward as the practical choice and cast the rollerball as the more expressive option.
With all of the major fine writing instrument product categories now covered, this three part series draws to a close. I hope that the articles were somewhat educational for you and perhaps just a little bit interesting to boot. I know that I learned a lot, not only about the fascinating history behind our everyday writing tools but also Pelikan’s approach to bringing each to market. Understanding their origins has given me a newfound respect for ballpoints, mechanical pencils, and rollerballs in general. Even if the writing instruments covered haven’t been to your taste and you still prefer a nib to tungsten carbide, graphite, or ceramic, I hope that you were able to take something away from each of these pieces. Feel free to leave me a comment below and, as always, thank for reading.
An early, complete set of Black/Green Souverän 400 writing implements all stamped “W.-Germany” and dating 1982-90. Left to right: M400 fountain pen, R400 roller ball, K400 ballpoint, and D400 pencil
- “Ballpoint Or Rollerball Pen? What Are The Main Differences And How To Choose The One That Is Right For You?” Visconti. December 12, 2021. Last accessed 7/20/22.
- de Lint, Dirck. “OHTO.” Ravens March Fountain Pens. Last accessed 7/20/22.
- Dittmer, Jürgen & Lehmann, Martin. “Pelikan Schreibgeräte 1929 – 1997.” Art Forum beim Baumhaus Verlag. Pages 55 & 97. 1998.
- Dittmer, Jürgen & Lehmann, Martin. “Pelikan Schreibgeräte 1929 – 2004.” A.H.F. Dunkmann GmbH & Co. KG. Page 93. 2004.
- “History.” OHTO. Last accessed 7/20/22.
- JaRee. “Rollerball Pens: All You Need to Know.” Pens Guide. May 27, 2019. Last accessed 7/20/2022.
- “Meet The Brand: OHTO.” Cult Pens. October 27, 2014. Last accessed 7/21/22.
- Shapira, J.A.. “The Rollerball Pen Guide.” Genlteman’s Gazette. March 24, 2015. Last accessed 7/20/22.