On 10 June 1943, the Biro brothers – Laszlo and Gyorgy – became owners of US patent 2,390,636 – better known around the world as the ball point pen. The Hungarian inventors’ new pen was the high-water mark of writing instruments – nay, writing in general – revolutionising communication forever more.
The Biros weren’t the first to come up with the idea of using a roller ball mechanism to distribute ink, however. Interestingly enough,a patent for a similar instrument had already been filed in 1888 – and the Biros themselves had filed an earlier patent in 1939. But it was their 1943 patent that proved to be commercially viable. Taken stock of, accepted and released to the world, the ball point pen burst on to writing pads and world canvases – and how.
There is shockingly little known about the two brothers who invented the ball point pen, and on this day – celebrated as Ball Point Pen Day – perhaps it’s time we remedied that.
The Hands Behind the Ink: Who Were the Biros?
Laszlo Biro, a Hungarian journalist, was an editor of asmall newspaper in 1935, when he began to notice with frustration the amount oftime it took to fill fountain pens and remove ink smudges. He’s also been quickto notice that the type of ink used in newspaper printing dried quickly, leavingthe pages smudge-free.
Laszlo geared up to emulate the mechanism and reachedout to his brother Gyorgy, who as a chemist, had the perfect tools at hisdisposal to create this new writing tool.
The ball point pen actually dated back to 1888, when JohnLoud, an American leather tanner, had patented a roller ball tip marking pen.Loud’s invention included a reservoir of ink and a roller ball that would apply the thicker ink to leather hides in order to mark them. These pens were never made, however – the problem being the texture of the ink. If the ink was thin,the pens leaked – if it was too thick, they clogged.
The mantle was taken up by the Biros with enthusiasm, almost 50 years later – and they were lucky enough to find a mentor of sorts in Augustine Justo, who just happened to be the President of Argentina. Once he’d seen their model of a ball point pen, Justo encouraged Laszlo and Gyorgy Biro to set up a factory in Argentina. Once World WarII broke out, the brothers fled to Paris, stopping in Argentina only to patent their pen.
However, the first set of ball point pens were a miserable failure – not much of an improvement over its predecessors. This was because the pen would work only if it was held more or less straight up – depending on gravity to move the ink to the roller ball tip. This meant that if the ink was too heavy, unattractive globs would be left over paper.
The Biros quickly remedied the fault by returning to their laboratories once again and devising anew design which now relied on “capillary action” rather than gravity for the ink to flow. The “ball” at the tip now acted like a metal sponge, soaking up excess ink and preventing leakage. The new and improved version was now patented on 10 June 1943 and was well on its way to write success.
How a Pen Helped Ink a World War Story...
The ball point pen was no humble achievement, either – creating a mark for itself in the annals of history. Its invention coincided with the Second World War, at a time when the British Royal Air Force badly needed a new kind of pen – one that wouldn’t leak in higher altitudes in fighter planes.
They’d been having huge problems with the old fountain pen which needed constant refilling. The successful use of the ball point pen by the air force brought the Biro brothers’ ball point pen strongly into the limelight.
The British government in fact, even bought the licensing rights to this patent for the war effort!
Fast forward 76 years, and it’s still hard to imagine life without the trusty old ball point pen.
Ball Point Pen Day remembers a classic that is steeped in history, that in its own tiny way, helped win a war, and that even today, is one of our most affordable luxuries.
So what are you waiting for? Push aside your tablets and pick up a pen. Honour the Biros and their invention the way you could best – write a hand-written note and make a mark. No pun intended.