A wry view of life for the world-weary

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Forty Nine


Laszlo Biro (1899 – 1985)

Cursive handwriting is now almost a dead art, alas, but back in the days before computer keyboards the development of a writing tool which was quick and clean was a godsend. Although the fountain pen had been a distinct leap forward from the quill feather, it was still a messy procedure. Even writing the simplest of documents you ran the risk of inky stains on your fingers or smudge marks on the page or both. Surely a fortune would be in store for someone who invented a cleaner more efficient form of writing instrument?

So, at least, thought the latest inductee to our Hall of Fame, Laszlo Biro, a Hungarian Jew by origin. As well as being a bit of an inventor in his spare time – Biro held patents for a steam-powered washing machine and an automatic transmission for a car – his day job was that of a newspaper reporter. He noticed that ink from inkwells or in fountain pens took several minutes to dry and smudged easily whereas the ink used for typesetting a newspaper dried much more quickly.

So Biro started out by seeing whether he could use the newspaper ink with fountain pen technology. The problem he encountered was significant – to work ink has to flow from the tip to the paper but the press ink was too thick to flow. What he needed was a way to transfer the quick-drying ink to the page without requiring the ink to flow. The answer, thought Biro, was to close the end of the pen instead of affixing a nib, leave an opening with just enough room for a tiny metal ball to spin against the reservoir of ink and distribute it on to the paper. Simple.

Biro’s brother, Gyorgy, was a chemist and he helped in refining the ink and this in conjunction with a rolling ball in a socket at the pen’s tip worked a treat. Smudges, blotches and inky fingers were soon to be a thing of the past. So successful was the design that it has remained virtually unchanged ever since.

But that was not the end of the story. The first problem for Biro was his semitic ancestry in 1930s Hungary and he and his family were forced to flee, arriving in Paris where in 1938 he successfully applied for a patent and then fled to Argentina. He was soon able to hold patents in Argentina, Hungary, Switzerland and the States. The pen went into commercial production in 1944 but was not immediately successful, mainly because the pen relied upon gravity to push the ink to the ball so unless you held it perfectly upright it would not work. Brother Gyorgy fixed the problem by employing a capillary action to pump the ink to the tip. One major still remained – its propensity to leak and ruin clothing.

Biro’s breakthrough came courtesy of the RAF who saw its merits for navigators who had to mark points on maps quickly and permanently and they placed the first bulk order, for 30,000. But competitors were quick to spot the potential of Biro’s invention, notably a Chicago businessman called Milton Reynolds who was able to copy most of Biro’s design into Reynold’s Rocket. Sold exclusively through a New York department store, Gimbels, it was an overnight sensation.

The revolution in ball point pen occurred in the early 1950s when Marcel Bich resolved all the problems associated with the ball point by creating the Bic Crystal, an efficient, effective, cheap and throwaway version of Biro’s original concept. It was a rip-roaring success and around the world some 57 pens a second are bought. But Biro didn’t share in its success, although he gave his name to the writing instrument.

Laszlo Biro, for inventing the ball point pen and not profiting from it, you are a worthy inductee into out Hall of Fame.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link


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