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  • Writer's pictureRobert A. Smith

How Printer’s Ink Inspired The Ball Point Pen

Updated: Jun 11

Perhaps the most famous signature in history belongs to John Hancock. He is remembered for his large and stylish signature on the US Declaration of Independence, so much so that in the United States, “John Hancock or “Hancock” has become a colloquialism for a person's signature.

 

Hancock signed his name using a quill which eventually made way for the fountain pen. But how in the world did we ever end up with today’s standard… the ball point pen?

 

By: Robert A. Smith


 Sometimes the road to entrepreneurism requires a walk into a business totally different than your own. Laslo Biro discovered that in 1930 when he walked into a print shop in Budapest Hungary.

 

Biro was a professional writer – a journalist. And in his day, journalists had just two choices in writing instruments: a pencil, or a fountain pen. Fountain pens were wonderful instruments, but they could be messy too – spilling a fountain of ink across tabletops, clothes, and manuscripts.

 

A VISIT TO A PRINTING PRESS GOT HIM THINKING

 

One day in 1930, while visiting the print shop where his publication was duplicated Laslo got an idea. He noticed that printer’s ink dried quickly, without smudging, and he thought, why not give writers the same kind of convenience with a similar ink and a new writing instrument.

 

Laslo asked his brother Georg, a chemist to develop a thicker, more glutinous ink, while he tackled the mechanical problem – something to replace the “nib” used in fountain pens. Laslo’s solution was a small steel ball in a brass casing connected to a plastic ink supply chamber. Pressing the point against a sheet of paper made the ball revolve, transferring the ink from chamber to paper. Removing pressure from the ball point stopped the ink from flowing.

 

AND SO WAS BORN THE BALL POINT PEN

 

It was the first writing instrument with spill-proof ink. The principle actually dated to an 1888 patent owned by John J. Loud for a product to mark leather. A product that wasn’t commercially exploited. The Biros intended to exploit theirs, so they got a patent. Unfortunately the patent couldn’t protect them from political upheaval.

 

They fled the Nazi invasion of Eastern Europe and landed in Paris. Later, when Hitler invaded France, they fled to Argentina. There that Lazlo Biro got his second patent and applied his concept to high-end pens - pens costing as much as $40 – a fortune in the 1940s.

 

WRITING UPSIDE DOWN MADE IT FAMOUS

 

Biro also sold a license to an Englishman who interested the British in buying 100,000 ball-point pens for the Royal Air Force. And it was in the RAF that they became famous. That’s because unlike fountain pens, ballpoints could be used without spilling ink all over maps, cockpits – or pilots. The pens could even be used to write while flying upside down - if need be. The new pen was so unique, for a time it was simply referred to as “The Biro.”



SELLING THE PATENT TO BIC

In 1950, Lazlo Biro sold his invention’s patent rights to another man -- French fountain pen maker Baron Marcel Bich. Bich dropped the last letter of his name – because he knew how “Bich” might sound in English speaking markets – and formed the Bic Pen Company.

 

Bic introduced yet another  innovation - the first low-cost, high quality disposable ball point pen.  In 1950 he put ergonomically-designed, high-tech writing instruments in the hands of everyday people with the Bic “Cristal” – a pen with a clear barrel so you could monitor how much ink you had left. He bragged you could write 1,475 Christmas Cards –2 kilometers of writing – with a single pen.

 

A WHOLE LINE OF DISPOSABLE PRODUCTS

 

Over the years, Bic continued to innovate, introducing the tungsten carbon ballpoint in 1961. And it extended the brand to embrace disposable lighters, shavers -- and for a time -- sports equipment like surfboards and kayaks. Today the Bic Crystal pen is in the Museum of Modern Art of New York's permanent collection.



Laszlo Biro exemplifies an Axiom on our website Thinkofthat.net. Solve a problem within your profession. As an editor, he freed writers from the messy ink spills of fountain pens – problems that had become something of an occupational hazard for writers.

 

The ball point pen – the first writing instrument with spill-proof ink. Now why didn’t I think of that?


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