The Biro, the invention that changed the writing game

In 1945, a new invention that had helped win World War II went on sale in the United States and Great Britain. Seen first as an expensive novelty, it quickly became not only part of our daily life, but revolutionized the way we communicate. It was the Biro, the first successful ballpoint pen – a deceptively simple writing instrument with a very big story behind it.

Every year an impressive number of ballpoint pens are sold. A single-brand model is selling at a rate of 57 per second and had racked up sales of $ 100 billion in 2006. Remember, these aren’t all pens or those from one company. It’s just a model of a business. Add up all the sales of all the ballpoint pens, and it’s no wonder Douglas Adams wrote about a fictional planet where the lost Biros migrate through wormholes in space to take advantage of a lifestyle focused on the Biro.

These pens go by many names around the world, but they are mainly known by two nicknames. One is ‘ballpoint pen’, which describes the underlying principle, and ‘Biro’, which is the name of the man who invented the first practical version.

Whatever their name, these pens are so inexpensive that they are a great example of the disposable era. When you stop writing, you throw it away because there is surely a replacement in a drawer somewhere, and if not, you can buy three sheet music for the price of a little latte.

In fact, we take them completely for granted. They are usually on hand, we collect them and use them without even thinking about it. They are so much a part of our lives that we forget how technologically sophisticated they are until we need them and don’t have them anymore. So it’s no wonder that emergency kit listings often include pens.

Before the Biro

But where does the ballpoint pen come from? What’s so special about him?

Before the Biro, ink writing hadn’t changed much since ancient times, when people cut quill quills into feathers with a slit in the tip to contain the ink to be transmitted onto a sheet of paper. paper, vellum or papyrus. A few hundred years ago, steel fountain pens were introduced, and in the 19th century, fountain pens were invented that could hold an ink reservoir in a rubber bladder in the barrel.

But these pens all had very serious limitations, and fountain pens were also so expensive that they were often given as gifts to mark important occasions like school graduation ceremonies. Worse yet, there were plenty of materials he couldn’t write on at all.

The idea of ​​replacing the nib with a small metal ball rolling in a socket to collect and distribute the ink is not new. In 1888, American John J. Loud patented a coarse ballpoint pen that could write on leather, wood, and coarse wrapping paper. It didn’t work very well, didn’t sell, and the patents were allowed to expire. Over the years, there have been many more attempts to produce a ballpoint pen, but these were extremely crude and often could barely scribble a readable word, or they leaked like a sieve when they didn’t get blocked.

László Bíró

Then, in the 1930s, László Bíró arrived. When he wasn’t working as a newspaper editor in his native Hungary, he especially tried his hand as a hypnotist, racing car driver and surrealist painter. Today he is inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and his life is a fascinating story.

László Bíró, the inventor of the Biro

Public domain

As a journalist, one thing Bíró found frustrating about his job was how inconvenient fountain pens were, finding them slow to fill, tending to splash, leaving smudged pages and ink being slow to fill. to dry. In contrast, he was impressed with the ink used to publish his journal, which dried almost instantly and did not smudge.

With the help of his brother György, who was a dentist with a background in chemistry, Bíró set out to create a new ballpoint pen design based on viscous ink similar to newsprint. After many false starts and setbacks, both technical and financial, the end result was a pen with a steel ball in a socket and an ink barrel filled with an ink paste that does not evaporate. like conventional ink. This simple description covers a lot of work to find the right shape for the bullet, the right composition for the ink and to sort out a dozen details, but it resulted in a British patent in 1938.

Argentina and World War II

Bíró’s work came at a time of political turmoil in the days leading up to the outbreak of World War II. The Hungarian government was becoming openly fascist and, as a Jew, Bíró’s family was under increasing threat. Fortunately, a chance meeting in a hotel with then Argentine President Augustín Pedro Justo led to an invitation to settle in Argentina and Bíró and his family fled there through France after many delays.

This may have made the Bíró family safer, but the commercialization of the new pen, now called Biro, was still far from easy. Due to financial and personal issues, Bíró’s invention found itself scrambled in a number of international patents and licensing agreements with different companies and individuals in various countries.

It seemed that the Biro would never reach a mass market, but the war changed the fortunes of the fledgling company when the new pen caught the attention of the British Aircraft Supply and Production Departments, which have placed an order for 30,000 units for the RAF, whose pilots were to write in their logbooks, mark maps and do in-flight calculations.

After the war

After the war, Bíró tweaked the design to make the ink flow more easily by making it flow by capillary action rather than gravity, so that the pen could be held at different angles. Meanwhile, other companies became interested in ballpoint pens and either secured the rights to Bíró’s design or found ways to circumvent its patents by reverse engineering.

In 1945 Biros hit the market in the United States and Britain en masse with mixed results due to fierce competition, such as the Reynolds company, which made a deal with the Gimbels department store in New York to sell his version of the ballpoint pen, the “Reynolds Rocket”, moving 30,000 in the first week.

Unfortunately, all of the pens from various companies had one thing in common: They were all incredibly expensive, with the Reynolds pen selling for US $ 12.50, which equates to $ 192.00 in 2021 dollars. As a result, the small market has quickly saturated and many businesses closed.

Then, in the 1950s, French entrepreneur Marcel Bich licensed the Bíró design and improved it by making it extremely cheap to produce. This became the famous Bic Cristal, also known as the Bic Pen, which consisted of a simple ballpoint pen attached to a clear plastic reservoir placed in a hexagonal plastic tube with a mysterious little hole in part to even out the air pressure. This pen quickly became the best-selling pen in the world and was quickly followed by many imitators who sold in the billions.

The Biro revolution

The ballpoint pen changed the way we write
The ballpoint pen changed the way we write

Before the Biro, writing was a ritual. Step into any hotel that is more than a century old that hasn’t been fully renovated, and you’ll likely see desks in the lobby and even in guest rooms.

If you wanted to write, you didn’t just take your pen out of your pocket and start doodling. You needed a firm, level surface. You needed the right quality of paper, a repairable pen, pen wipes to clean the nibs, an inkwell, blotting paper, blotter, and gum arabic to soak up the excess ink. – not to mention enough patience to let the ink dry. If you were well off you could have a fountain pen, which did away with the inkwell, but not completely as the fountain pens had to be refilled every day if the writer was prolific. Otherwise, the ink would still dry in the reservoir.

On top of all that, the way you wrote with those old pens was very different from today, beyond having to keep dipping a fountain pen in ink every few words. With a ballpoint pen, you press the point on the paper and the ink simply rolls over the fibers. However, with a nib or fountain pen, the ink flows by gravity or, in more elaborate fountain pens, by the force of a plunger. In addition, writing with them required great concentration to avoid splashing ink or tearing the paper with the sharp metallic nib.

No wonder writers and employees can be easily identified by their ink-stained fingers and shirts.

As a result, it is much easier to write with older pens by keeping the nib against the paper and lifting it as little as possible. Writing in cursive with such pens is relatively quick and easy, and the results are readable. Writing all capital letters, as many do today, is slow, messy, and difficult to read.

With a ballpoint pen, you can write without thinking, on almost any surface, and even underwater, if you feel like it. There are even pens that can work in the weightlessness of space. It’s such a neat technology in its simplicity that we don’t even think about it until our pen runs out of ink.

Although most people didn’t notice it because it happened too slowly, the Biro changed the way we write. Today, writing in capital letters is more and more common and cursive is so rare that one often wonders if it is still worth teaching children. It is an evolution that has altered written communications in ways not seen since the invention of the printing press and relegated its predecessors to the behind the scenes of calligraphy and nostalgia.

So the next time you jot down the tip and sign the bill at a restaurant, take a moment to think about the game-changing story that made this simple act possible.


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