Late Great Engineers: László Bíró - mightier than the sword

Hungarian journalist and innovator László Bíró became a household name with his quick-drying ballpoint pen that literally wrote his name into the history books of the 20th century. Written by Nick Smith.

When it comes to simple engineering solutions to everyday problems, there are few finer examples than the ballpoint pen. An early print advertisement for a ‘new writing instrument’ called the Biro seems to say it all, for the gadget could write ‘an average of 200,000 words’ (that’s about three times more than most novels) with ink that ‘dries as you write’.

László Bíró
László József Bíró. Image: Victor Sueiro via Wikimedia commons

Not only that, the Biro (always spelled with a capital ‘B’, for which reason the Guardian and Observer style book prefers ‘ballpoint pen’) ‘does not smudge while you write … does not leak at any altitude … makes at least six perfect carbon copies’ while presenting a ‘boon’ to left-handed writers, who up until this point would always end up producing smudged copy. All this from a pen that ‘writes on a ball bearing with a velvet touch and a smooth gliding action’. It cost a robust 55 shillings in old money (equivalent £2.75) which, when adjusted for inflation, means that on their launch, ballpoint pens cost a thousand times more than their basic counterparts do now. Despite which, Biros brought writing to the masses and is a technology that is still with us today. In fact 125 ballpoint pens are sold every second. “Everybody wants a Biro, and there’s a Biro for everybody” ran an early sales slogan for László Bíró’s eponymous pen.

What I was looking for was something that was entirely new among writing instruments.

László Bíró (1899-1985)

Although it looks like an abbreviation for pencil, the word pen has different linguistic roots and is derived from the Latin for ‘feather’ (rather than ‘penis’), which is also the origin of the engineering. Writing with quills (and their successor technology the fountain pen) was a messy, laborious and slow art. This was something that bothered the Hungarian journalist Bíró, who noticed that the viscous ink used on newspaper printing presses dried far more quickly than that used by his fountain pen.

Working as a scribe in those pre-digital days, he pondered what sort of mechanism could replace his antiquated free-flowing nib to deliver a modified version of the quick-drying printer’s ink to the page. Bíró’s (not altogether original) idea was to close off the nib and fit a ball bearing into it. These days he is usually credited as the inventor who patented the first commercially successful modern ballpoint pen.

László József Bíró was born in Budapest on 29th September 1899. A successful dentist, his father Mátyás was also something of an inventor who, apart from coming up with door opening mechanisms, also experimented with developing cartridges for fountain pens based on water-soluble solid ink being delivered in its liquid state to the nib: an enterprise Bíró’s biographer György Moldova describes in his book Ballpoint as ‘not a success’. Moldova describes the young Bíró as a rebellious child unwilling (like his studious and conventional elder brother György) to follow in his father’s medical footsteps.

A street fighter and truant, László was called up for military service at the age of eighteen but played no active part in the Great War, before studying for a few perfunctory terms at the University of Medicine where his only interest was hypnosis. “I was the first person in Hungary to deal seriously with practical hypnosis,” he would recall. “I made so much money out of it that I lost all interest in continuing my medical studies.”

Something of a fantasist, Bíró would later claim that he went onto become a racing driver and a biological researcher (among other things) when he had, according to Moldova, driven a racing car – a red 12-cylinder Bugatti that he had bought from a famous actor while ‘noticeably’ inebriated – on but one occasion and had ‘only dissected a couple of frogs’. His abortive attempt to commercialise an automotive gearbox he had designed brought him into the orbit of the ‘big sharks’ of the world of patents.

Throughout this time, he maintained a nominal career as a journalist on a fine art journal where he developed a reputation for rarely visiting the office, preferring to write in Budapest’s Japan Café that, as well as selling coffee, provided its mostly journalistic clientele with proof slips, hand-blotters and pens: “Bíró made use of all of these on a daily basis.” Moldova doesn’t even try to build a case for Bíró being ‘one of Hungary’s greatest wordsmiths.’ His investigative journalism was mostly fiction, rejoicing under such titles as The British air force will only accept candidates who can hold their breath for at least 68 seconds.

But Bíró’s journalistic career would directly lead to the innovation for which he is remembered. It was while sitting in the café he noticed children playing marbles and saw how the glass balls would leave a trail of water after they had rolled through a puddle. “I knew the origins and development of writing tools in considerable detail,” says Bíró in his memoirs, “from symbols inscribed in stone, through the brushes used by the Chinese to the split goose quill, from nibs made of steel, gold and iridium, to the fountain pen. But none of these precedents provided me with any kind of guidance for my work.”

From an engineering standpoint, there was nothing new in Bíró’s idea. The first ballpoint pen had been invented half a century before by the American lawyer John Jacob Loud, who obtained the first patent for such a device in 1888. Mainly because Loud’s invention was not sophisticated enough be used for writing on paper (it could be used to mark rough surfaces such as leather or wood), its potential went unexploited and the patent lapsed, creating the opportunity for Bíró to refine and exploit the innovation commercially. The first production model of his ballpoint pen was shown at the Budapest International Fair of 1931.

László Bíró
Drawing from the U.S. patent application for Biro's first commercially successful ballpoint pen, 1941. Image: Alamy

However strongly we are tempted to accuse Bíró of plagiarism or patent fraud, the charge won’t stand up to scrutiny advises his biographer, because even “in 1936 there did not exist a ballpoint pen that worked properly: one type would leak, while another would cut out during writing or display other problems.

It would be another decade before the first perfectly working specimen would appear, bearing Bíró’s name.” Working alongside his brother György, who was now a dentist and talented chemist, the two men developed the design of the enclosed ball bearing that collected ink on its surface as it rotated and then deposited it onto the blank paper. Bíró would file his own patent for the technology in Paris in 1938, just before the outbreak of World War Two. As the Wall Street Journal observed: “a simple but remarkable invention came into a world about to be convulsed by death and destruction.”

For a Hungarian Jew living in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the writing was on the wall and the brothers Bíró bowed to the inevitable and fled the Nazis, fetching up in Argentina in 1943. In June of that year they filed another patent and formed the company Biro Pens of Argentina to make the Birome as it was called in that territory.

For several years the brothers struggled with problems ranging from the sale price (ball point pens started off as luxury items) to the manufacturing process, forcing Bíró in 1945 to sell his patent to French manufacturer Marcel Bich, co-founder of the BIC company that would go on to become a global market leader in the production of ballpoint pens, lighters and razors. At this point in the story, several sources mention that Bíró was in discussions with the UK’s Royal Air Force to license production so that pilots could write their air logs at altitude. Bíró’s citation in the National Inventors Hall of Fame reads in part: “His pen came to the attention of a British clerk who thought the pen would be useful to airplane navigators because it was not dependent on pressure for ink distribution, working well at high altitudes. The British government bought Bíró’s patent and had the pens made for the Royal Air Force. From this, Bíró’s pen quickly gained commercial success.”

While the man who brought the first proper ballpoint into the world died in Buenos Aires in 1985, his name will live on. When we talk of the ballpoint pen, we invariably refer to a ‘Biro’, an antiquated technology that will be with us for as long as humans use pens. As David Sax says in his book The Revenge of Analog: “When people in the tech world talk about outdated tech, they are never arguing that pens are outdated. Even Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk will have a bunch of pens sitting around.”