You may not realise this but the humble ballpoint pen, used by millions of people around the world every day, is less than eight decades old.
Invented as the Second World War was about to begin in 1938, the biro takes its name from its creator Ladislao José Biro.
Biro, who was born in 1899, was a sometime journalist, painter and inventor who was frustrated with fountain pens blotting and smudging. He got the idea on a visit to a newspaper printing press, which used quick-drying ink and a roller.
“It got me thinking how this process could be simplified right down to the level of an ordinary pen,” he later said.
So he set about creating the biro, which would begin production in 1944 under the name “Eterpen” and retail for the equivalent of £33.
Today would have been Biro’s 117th birthday and Google is honouring the occasion with a Doodle.
How was the biro created?
Biro’s first idea for the ballpoint pen was to use the quick-drying newspaper ink in a fountain pen. This however didn’t work as the ink was too thick and slow-moving to reach the tip of the nib.
So he created a ballpoint nib which was coated with a thin film of ink from the cartridge as it made contact with paper and spun in its socket. Biro initially tested the invention with fountain pen and printing ink, both of which had the wrong consistency.
Biro enlisted the help of his brother György Bíró who was a chemist to create ink that was just the right viscosity. The pair gave their name to the invention when they patented it the “Biro” on July 15 1938.
The pen is still called a biro in countries including the UK, Ireland, Australia and Italy, but in the US it is known as a ballpoint pen.
How do ballpoint pens work?
The nib in a ballpoint pen is normally made of a metal such as brass, steel or tungsten carbide. When it comes into contact with a piece of paper, or other writing material, the ball rotates and picks up a thin film of ink from the cartridge, which is a pressurised tube.
Prior to the ballpoint pen, which was invented in relatively recent history, all pens used a nib and a dark, watery ink called india ink. Quill pens have been around since around 600 AD, while the lead pencil was created in 1795.
Biro was not the first person to come up with the idea of a rollerball system for delivering ink to the nib of a pen. John Loud is widely believed to have patented the first ballpoint pen back in 1888, but he failed to turn it into a commercial product and so his patent lapsed.
What does it have to do with World War II?
Ladislao José Biro, the eponymous inventor, was born into a Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary, and started life as László József Bíró. In fact he maintained that name until after he invented the handy ballpoint pen when, in 1940, he was forced to flee the Nazi occupation of his home country.
After escaping the hostile occupation of Hungary, Biro made his way to Argentina, where he eventually secured backing to turn the biro into a commercial product. The pen’s first backer was the British accountant Henry George Martin, according to the Biographical Dictionary of the History of Technology.
The first major buyer of the newly created pen was the Royal Air Force. During the Second World War the organisation ordered 30,000 of the tools, which would work at high altitudes unlike traditional fountain pens. After the war it entered commercial production.
Today, the Bic Cristal biro is the world’s most popular pen. In the US, the price has remarkably stayed the same since 1959 – retailing at 19 cents despite inflation.