For our American readers, a pen is usually just a pen. But those of you in the UK know that cheap ballpoints are often referred to as “biros.” If you’ve ever wondered about the reason for that, it’s this:
The first ballpoint pen, utilizing a steel ball bearing held in place by a socket, was developed in the late 19th century by a man named John Loud. Unfortunately, his invention didn’t work too well on paper and was used mainly for marking leather, according to a report from the BBC.
A few others tried without much success over the next several years to make similar pens.
Then, in the 1930s, a newspaper editor in Budapest named Laszlo Biro decided he’d had it with trying to use fountain pens in his work. He apparently felt that fountain pen ink took too long to dry and was easily smeared when taking notes at the fast pace of a journalist. But, Biro noticed that the ink that was used to print the newspaper dried very quickly.
From The Telegraph:
He later recalled: “It got me thinking how this process could be simplified right down to the level of an ordinary pen.”
He tried the ink in a fountain pen, but it was too thick to flow properly, according to the European Patent Office, so he began experimenting with other delivery methods. He and his brother Georg, a chemist, eventually settled on the ball bearing system.
The Nazi occupation of Hungary forced the Biro brothers to flee to France, where Laszlo applied for and received a patent.
The brothers then moved on to Argentina and continued to tinker with the pen until they had a workable model. Biro formed a company called Eterpen and went into production in the early ’40s.
One of the first large orders came from the Royal Air Force, which needed ink pens for navigators that wouldn’t leak at high altitudes, as fountain pens were prone to doing. The RAF ordered 30,000 of Biro’s new ballpoint pens.
Those first pens were expensive. They sold for the equivalent of about £27 at today’s rates, according to The Telegraph.
Unfortunately for Biro, his invention began to attract the attention of competitors. Science writer Lynne Friedman wrote that he’d sold the rights to make and sell the Biro pen in North America to the Eversharp company for US$500,000, but they were beaten to the market by an American businessman who discovered that Biro did not have a U.S. patent.
Milton Reynolds had been traveling in Argentina and came across one of Biro’s pens. Since there was no patent preventing him from copying it, he immediately began manufacturing his own version of the ballpoint pen for sale in the States. He told the Milwaukee Journal in 1945 that the Reynolds pen, which cost US$12, could write for two years without having to be refilled.
From a Reynolds Pen ad in a 1946 issue of the Chicago Tribune
The pens, though, were junk.
From a 1947 issue of Time magazine:
What made it craziest was the fact that nothing could stop people from buying ball-points by the thousands, despite the fact that they 1) often failed to work (Reynolds alone got back 104,643 defective pens in his first eight months) or 2) oozed ink all over hands and paper. The ink in some pens even fermented, and blew the balls right out of the pens. But buyers kept right on coming. Said one bemused pen man: “They’re like horse players. They figure they can beat the odds—and get one that works.”
Reynolds eventually dropped the price to US$1 per pen, still a healthy amount in the ’40s. At that price, Macy’s department store in New York still sold 68,000 in one day, according to Time.
Meanwhile, Biro sold his French patent for US$2 million to a man named Marcel Bich, who opened a factory in 1950 to begin production of an improved version of the Biro design. Bich called his company Bic and his pen the Bic Cristal. And just like that, Biro became synonymous with Bic pens.
The Cristal was reliable and cheap, and, by the end of the decade, was selling across Europe and the U.S. Within 50 years, the company announced it had sold 100 billion pens. More than 200 million of those are sold each year in Britain, each one a biro in the mind of the buyer.
Biro passed away in 1985. On his pen’s anniversary in 2008, his daughter Mariana told The Telegraph:
“The Biro was my father’s greatest invention. I’m so proud that the name lives on. He used to hear people say the ballpoint was ruining writing skills. He would smile and say, ‘Well, writing comes from the heart. If we can help the hand to perform the task, what is so wrong with that?'”
Nothing at all, of course.