Ballpoint Pens

The history behind the Biro

Ballpoint Pens

It is a journalist from Hungary, Laszlo Biro, that is credited with inventing the ballpoint and unleashing the age of the disposable pens.

It was Biro's brainwave in the 1940s that sounded the death knell for the monopoly enjoyed by the fountain pen and ink well.

Being a writer to trade, Biro was frustrated at the shortcomings of the fountain pen as a writing tool for busy journalists with deadlines to meet. It irked him that while printing presses used ink that quickly dried and fixed itself to paper, the reporters generating the news copy made do with messy India ink and a fountain pen.

Resolving to put this matter right, Biro conceived of a pen that utilized a small rotating nib that would allow thinner quick-drying ink to be used.

In spite of Europe being in the midst of the Second World War, Biro and his brother, Georg, a chemist, patented the design of the ballpoint pen in 1943. They then went into commercial production with the eponymously-titled Biro pen.

Their pen quickly attracted the attention of the British Government who subsequently bought the rights to ballpoint pens in order to issue them to Royal Air Force. Aircrew flying high altitude sorties had found fountain pens tended to flood ink in reduced air pressure and they desperately needed an alternative. The Biro ballpoint coped well in the demanding environment of war and so the adoption by the military of the ballpoint pen became widespread thanks to the Royal Air Force.

At the end of the Second World War, ballpoint pens became consumer goods, but it is not Biro that produced the first mass market ballpoint. The title goes instead to Frenchman, Marcel Bich whose BIC pens made a global impact due to their affordable price and slick marketing.

By 1956, the unprecedented demand for ballpoint pens, increased competition from other manufacturers and modern mass production methods had brought the unit price of the ballpoint down to around ten cents. It was this turning point that made the pen no longer a prized possession but a cheap and disposal consumer commodity.

As is normally the case, it's the simplest solutions that are the best. Given its worldwide success it's no surprise that the ballpoint fits into this category. What is at the center of its design is, unsurprisingly, a ball that rotates within a close-fitting socket. The ball does two jobs. Firstly, it acts as a stopper for the ink. Secondly, the ball is also the nib. With just enough clearance to rotate within the socket, the friction of moving against paper and gravity initiates the flow of ink onto the ball where it is then transferred onto the paper and dries.

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