Many VIPs are celebrating their 70th birthday this year – or would be celebrating it if they were still alive. However, neither Mick Jagger, Janis Joplin, George Harrison or Jil Sander can hold a candle to this celebrity as far as popularity is concerned. Not even Robert De Niro who was also born in 1943. Although his surname does slightly resemble the inventor’s name: László József Biró.
The birthday child that we would like to pay tribute to here and that we would never want to be without again is none other than the ballpoint pen. The ingenious writing instrument that we would be lost without in everyday life, which we all love and need. 70 years ago the “Eterpen” set off from South America on its triumphal procession around the world.
How it all began
The Hungarian son of a dentist László József Biró (1899–1985) inherited the love of tinkering from his father, but not the desire to carry out the same profession. He broke off his medical studies and tried his luck at various jobs such as insurance broker, hypnotiser, painter, racing driver and journalist. As a member of the authors’ guild, among others as the Chief Editor of the art magazine Hongrie-Magyarország-Hungary, as well as occupying himself with tongue twisters he naturally also had a lot to do with writing utensils, to be more precise with scratchy, leaking fountain pens that had to be constantly refilled with ink. Good luck to anyone who had no blotting paper or a basin close at hand. While watching the rotation rollers in a printing shop, Biró came up with the idea of a pen that wrote with ink, but that wouldn’t smudge. It was also to be favourably-priced so that everyone could afford one. A revolution! Supported by his brother, György, the inventor Andor Goy and the Kovalszky brothers he was able to produce such a pen within a short space of time. In brief: the basis for today’s ballpoint pen with an ink refill and a rolling ball at the tip of the refill to convey the ink onto the paper.
For the sake of completeness, it should be mentioned that other people had had the idea of a ballpoint pen before Biró. For example, there is a patent from the year 1888 for a ball writing instrument used to mark leather with. However, the ink supply always caused problems – the pens either leaked or dried out. One also shouldn’t forget the pioneering achievement of Theo Nagel from Germany, who later founded the writing instrument specialist rou bill and went on to write a success story on the promotional products market. Nagel had already registered a patent for a ball fountain pen called “Thena” in 1929, which means within the insider circles he is considered to be the actual inventor of the principle of applying ink onto the paper smoothly and consistently using a ball at the tip.
However, back to Biró. On April 25, 1938 the time had come: The inventive dentist’s son was awarded the patent for a “pen with a ball and writing paste,“ which is still stored in the basement of the Patent Office in Budapest today. So, strictly speaking our good old biro will be 75this year. However, since the first models, which Biró incidentally christened “Go-Pen“, still kept jamming and their inventor who was of Jewish decent had to flee from the National Socialists a few months later, the year 1943 is commonly accepted to be the year the ballpoint pen was born. Namely, on June 10, 1943 the Hungarian genius renewed the patent for his “Ball Pen” in Argentina and the success quite literally started rolling.
However, it was somebody else, who actually helped the ballpoint pen to literally become such an international soaring success: Henry George Martin, a British businessman, purchased the patency rights for the new invention and founded a ballpoint production factory in Reading/England. He subsequently supplied the British Royal Air Force with around 30,000 ballpoint pens during the Second World War. The reason: The modern writing instruments could even be used at high altitudes to make smudge-free notes. This was early confirmation for the high benefit of the ballpoint. It is thus no wonder that it advanced into becoming such a bestseller in the 1950s.
German companies that mastered precision machine building technologies now also wanted to get in on the act and earn money with the ballpoint. For instance, the company Schneider began making sample refills in 1948, from 1951 Schneider was the licence holder of the Biró patents. After that, the ballpoint, which can definitely be referred to as an invention of the Century, became a perennial bestseller, an everyday miracle that became popular in all areas of life and which impressed the masses. An omnipresent practical article that very soon became a mass produced item and which is still being perfected and further developed up to this very day.
In its jubilee year, the old veteran is looking younger than ever. It is really incredible how many different versions there are in the meantime and one can hardly wait to see what developments the future holds in store. Whether equipped with a push-button or a twist-action mechanism, decorated with a doming or Swarovski crystals, in carbon look or made of biodegradable corn starch, with an extractable promotional flag or a woman doing a striptease, with an integrated lolly, fragrance or USB stick – from pompous to favourably-priced, classic to cult and from simple to elegant, anything is possible. Anything that pleases and that is technically possible is allowed.
And this is precisely why the birthday child has established itself as the top classic on the promotional products market. Because regardless whether they are low-priced mass produced pens or a limited edition – there are almost no limits to the design possibilities or customising options for Biró’s baby, which can be implemented for all kinds of occasions.
Thanks to Biró, who created the prototype of the ballpoint pen 70 years ago. Up until this very day the Argentinians celebrate the birthday of the inventor on September 29, and countries such as Great Britain, Italy and France paid tribute to him by using his name as the word for “ballpoint pen”, they simply called it biro or biron. We pay homage to you, dear ballpoint: Happy 70th birthday! Let there always be enough ink in your refill!