JIM REES profiles László Biró, inventor of the first commercially successful modern ballpoint pen.


You know when a new invention has satisfied a need: it not only comes into general use, but it also adds a new word to the dictionary. A ‘hoover’ is a perfect example. The machine, of course, is a vacuum cleaner, but it made such an impact on consumers that the brand name Hoover became the noun.

Another example is the humble biro.

Writing implements have been around for thousands of years, from the paint-covered fingers primitive man used to adorn cave walls to pointed sticks used to scratch in wet clay; from feather brushes to the electronic do-dahs we now use to sign for delivered parcels.

Most, however, have been designed to make ink marks on papyrus, vellum or paper. Quills, made from large feathers, were the order of the day for medieval scribes. Most of these feathers were taken from geese or female swans (pens) and the points were kept sharp and clean by regular paring with a pen-knife.

These developed into metal nibs attached to wooden shafts which had to be dipped into a small pot (or well) of ink.

To get around this constant dipping and wiping off the excess, a major break-through was made in the late 19th century. A slightly thick pen capable of housing its own reservoir of ink was developed – the fountain pen.

But even this had its disadvantages. The ink was still very fluid and prone to blotting and smearing. No doubt older readers will remember the school day consequences of dip pens and cheap fountain pens.

Enter László Bíró.

Bíró was a busy man – too busy to have to keep refilling his fountain pen and too fastidious to let the smallest blot or smear escape his attention.

Born in Hungary in 1899, Bíró was a newspaper editor who noticed how quickly the inks used in newspaper printing dried, leaving the paper smudge free. Surely a similar consistency of ink could be used for pens?

He put the idea to his brother György who was a chemist by profession. He recognised that quicker drying ink would be too thick to be used with the usual slit-nib, so László experimented with a tiny ball-and-socket arrangement which would roll the thick ink onto the paper.

It wasn’t a new idea. In fact, John J. Loud, an American lawyer and inventor, had invented this ‘ball-point’ system in 1888, but it was far from perfect.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own