Since their invention, ballpoint pens have revolutionized the way we write. In 1938, Hungarian journalist László Bíró, annoyed by smudged and spotty writing, noticed that the ink used to print newspapers dried faster and smudged much less than the ink used for writing. However, the printing ink was too thick to be used in a fountain pen, as it wouldn’t flow through the nib. Thus, he created the first ballpoint pen.
Bíró’s design was inspired by a game of marbles. One day, while he was working in a cafe, Bíró noticed a group of children playing when one of the marbles rolled through a puddle, leaving a trail of water behind it. The design he created echoed an earlier writing instrument with a large ball bearing used to write on surfaces that fountain pens were ineffective on, mostly leather.
Bíró worked with his brother György, a chemist, to develop a new ink based on the fast drying newspaper ink that inspired the pen. This ink would be held in a cartridge sealed by a ball bearing to prevent the ink from drying out. This bearing was still able to rotate in its socket, allowing ink to be dragged across the surface of paper. The Bíró design was the first truly effective ballpoint pen attempt.
Life and Career
The path to success was not a short one. In György Moldova’s biography Ballpoint, Bíró is described as rebellious and somewhat lazy as a youth. His military career was brief and saw little action, much like his stint in medical school, where he expressed an interest in practical hypnosis and little else. When he invented the pen, he was nominally a journalist, though according to Moldova, his investigative work was more fiction than fact, and he rarely came into the office, preferring to work out of a Budapest café.
His true troubles came as the pen was developed in 1938. As a Jewish man living in the Austro-Hungarian empire in the years leading up to World War II, Bíró and his family faced increasing danger in their home country, and that year the government prepared to pass a series of increasingly discriminatory laws. Months after completing the pen, Bíró took his designs and fled to Paris with most of his family, and later fled again to Argentina.
The Ballpoint Business
In 1943 Argentina, Bíró and his brother filed another patent and founded the company Biro Pens of Argentina. Initially sold as a luxury product, their product caught the attention of the British Royal Air Force, who needed pens that were capable of writing in high altitudes. The RAF’s adoption of the pen served as an early launchpad to commercial success.
Though the pen grew to be tremendously popular, Bíró himself saw very little profit, as in 1945, he and György sold their patent to Marcel Bich, a French manufacturer, in order to help his family escape to Argentina. To this day, Bich’s company, BIC, remains the largest global manufacturer of ballpoint pens, which are known colloquially throughout many parts of the world as the biro.
Though he is not a particularly well-known figure, Bíró’s legacy is felt around the world. His invention has had more impact on writing than anything else created since the 1800s.
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