World War II has been credited with aiding their global popularity. When I was at school they were right up there alongside Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Enid Blyton; those unpardonable shocking icons of an era when any suggestion of slacking or loosening standards was dealt with swiftly.
I speak of that illicit tool of the slovenly, the apparatus of the indolent; the instrument that would lead to such moral collapse it was unthinkable, to quote my headmistress.
I speak of the humble ballpoint pen or as it is more widely known, the biro.
All my school writing was done with an italic fountain pen and there are still many primary school teachers who insist the fountain pen forges much better handwriting. But just what is it about the humble biro that makes it so unpopular and for that matter, where did it come from?
After centuries of using a quill and then fountain pen, the written world took a giant leap thanks to a concept first envisaged by American attorney and inventor John J Loud from Massachusetts. It’s not clear why he came up with the idea of a ballpoint pen and there are a number of stories floating around, but what we do know is that a patent was granted in October 1888, so I think it’s only right he should be credited with the distinction of inventing the first ballpoint pen,
“My invention consists of an improved reservoir of fountain pen, especially useful, among other purposes, for marking on rough surfaces … and other articles where an ordinary pen could not be used”.
For some reason he didn’t progress his idea and around 1905 the patent expired.
We have to wait until 1938 for the next chapter to be written.
BÍRÓ IS BORN
Lászlo Bíró born 1899 in Budapest, is described as a journalist, painter and inventor and it is suggested he was looking for a method of writing his notes without the problem of the ink smudging, a common problem with fountain pens.
The ink used on the newspaper printing press dried very quickly so he filled a fountain pen with printer ink but it was too thick so he redesigned the nib to incorporate a small ball that rotated and drew out the ink from the reservoir, then with the help of his brother György, created an ink with just the right viscosity. However following the outbreak of World War II Lászlo fled the Nazi occupation of his country and in 1940 went to Argentina where he patented the idea.
He called their invention the ‘Biro’.
It’s possible he came across Loud’s original idea during his research and he merely developed the model, the main difference was that Lászlo commercially exploited the product.
In 1943 an English accountant, Henry George Martin saw the Biro while visiting Argentina and returned to Britain with the pen which is when the RAF came on the scene. Unlike fountain pens, the new Biro didn’t leak or explode at high altitude which was essential for RAF fighter pilots. The British government bought the licensing rights and were soon buying the Biro in their thousands.
MARKETING & SALES
As the war came to a close, the Eterpen Company marketed the Biro in Argentina and in May 1945 Eversharp teamed up with Eberhard-Faber to achieve exclusive rights and rebranded it “Eversharp CA” (capillary action).
Just weeks later Milton Reynolds of Chicago saw the potential in the product and launched Reynolds International Pen Company ignoring Eversharp’s patent rights. By October 1945 he was selling his “Reynolds Rocket”.
Meanwhile across the pond the Miles-Martin Pen Company in the UK sold their version of the ballpoint pen from Christmas 1945.
Sales were huge even though the Reynolds Rocket leaked and the Eversharp biro quality was very poor, however it didn’t stop Eversharp suing Reynolds.
By 1948 the popularity and novelty of the pen had waned and the price dropped dramatically by over 95% as fountain pens returned in popularity.
But with an improved design and technological advances Parker Pens marketed their ‘Jotter’ from January 1954, surpassing the quality and design of both Eversharp and Reynolds. Eversharp went out of business shortly afterwards and was liquidated in the 1960s.
The final and possibly most important part of the jigsaw was when baron Marcel Bich got in on the act.
Born in 1914 in Turin and gaining French citizenship during the 1940s, he became director of production at an English pen and ink manufacturer called Stephens and Swann. His partner Edouard Buffard had secured the patent rights to Bíró’s ballpoint pen and the two of them set up a factory in Clichy to mass produce the Bic Crystal Biro.
Bich realised it was the pricing that was at fault; the Miles Martin Pen company was selling a single biro for £2 15/- in 1946, the equivalent of a week’s wage for a secretary. So he established Societé Bic in 1953 and along with his razors and lighters, he became the king of disposables.
THE LAST WRITTEN WORD
Bic stats for 2015:
- 33% or 18.5 million of their overall sales were for stationery products
- There are 71,300 distributors & wholesalers worldwide
- With 46% of sales being made in North America, they are the biggest consumer
So perhaps the next time a school teacher dismisses the idea of writing with a Bic biro, if he or she was made aware of the fascinating story, perhaps they would be less incensed.
What do you write with, a biro or fountain pen?