news letter

Weekly newsletter

Hungarian Inventions: The ‘Biro’ Pen

By Ferenc Sullivan // 2014.12.11.

Did you know that the ball-point pen, commonly known as a biro, was invented by a Hungarian? A journalist from Budapest named László Bíró. Even if you have heard this before, you may be surprised to read some of the details of the background and development of this everyday icon.

László Bíró, (1899-1985) was a journalist in Budapest. Writing a lot with the fountain pens of the time, but in the vicinity of newspaper presses, he noted that the thick, sticky newspaper ink dried far more quickly than the runny India ink used in fountain pens, which required blotting, drying and lots of patience to prevent smudges. He came up with the idea of using it in an internal cartridge that would not need refilling. This was fine, except that the ink would not flow into the tip as it was too thick. Working with his brother György, a chemist, he developed a hollow nib, with a round ball in the tip, that would revolve and leave a neat trail of the new quick-drying ink.  Thus the name, ball-point pen.

The Bíró brothers patented the invention in Hungary and in the UK, where it was later produced in huge numbers. The also patented it in Argentina, their new home, as they were among the thousands of Jews to flee Hungary in the Second World War. Interestingly, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) took a great interest in the product, as it had the ability to write at high altitude, unlike fountain pens. For most ordinary people they were just a fantastic tool, that allowed you to write for years without refilling and did not smudge.

The Bíró brothers went on to moderate success in Argentina under the name Birome, which later was taken over by the Eterpen/Eberhard-Faber  company but in other parts of the world, a real struggle for the product started. Firms such as Reynolds copied the design and sold it in America (where it was not patented) which caused a huge legal struggle with the licensed producer Eberhard/Faber. For the full story, read here.

In the end, mass –production at poor quality and a reputation for leaks actually caused a loss of confidence in Biros, before minor improvements from companies like Parker and Bic finally sped the humble pen to stardom.