Who was László Bíró and what do we owe him – beyond the ballpoint pen?
The list of the most famous Hungarians regularly includes the inventor of the ballpoint pen and this is more or less what most people know about him. But who was he and what else did he invent during his adventurous life? Was really the ballpoint pen his most important invention? What impact did this inexpensive writing instrument have on writing? This article seeks to answer these questions.
He was born as László József Schweiger, died as Ladislao José Biro, also worked as a journalist and painter but most people know him as an inventor. László József Bíró was born in Budapest in 1899 to Mózes Mátyás Schweiger, a dental technician from Hódmezővásárhely and Janka Ullmann from Kaposvár.
He started regularly writing in his twenties and earned a living for a long time as a journalist in Budapest. His articles were published in the best-known newspapers of the time, Pesti Napló and Pesti Hírlap but he also worked as the editor of the art journal Hongrie-Magyarország-Hungary. He was a real Renaissance man as he was also interested and engaged in painting and sculpture.
Not known whether from his own income or from inheritance but it is a fact that he bought himself a Bugatti sports car in the 1930s. However, he was displeased with the mechanic manual gearshift as he thought he was unable to use the power of the engine to the fullest. He went on to improve his self-designed automatic gear so successfully that the rights were eventually bought by the American General Motors. In exchange, he received 200 US dollars each month for five years, which was a high amount at the time. While his design never went into production as General Motors only wanted to own the competitive product, it must have surely contributed to the subsequent development of gears.
However, this was not his only better-known invention. He was already living in the United States when his company Biro, Meyne & Biro registered and planned to market 21 perfumes. However, the first series was defective so this business failed but the roll-on deodorants used in the campaign survived and are widely used to this day.
Clinical termography equipment, tamper-proof lock, bottle label printer, equipment for power generation from sea waves, one-stroke internal combustion engine is a list clearly indicating the many talents of Bíró whose name is associated with at least thirty other inventions, all of them overshadowed by the one that can be found in every household from Japan to South America and from Europe to Africa today.
New era in the history of writing
The way a ballpoint pen works is not too difficult: a tube filled with ink ends in a rotating ball that transfers the ink to the paper. This idea was conceived some time before the Hungarian inventor was born, however, these initial versions were unable to evenly distribute the ink and the instrument had to be held vertically, which is practically impossible while writing.
The invention, which later made its creator world-famous, was, as usual, the result of an accident, at least according to one of the stories. Based on Bíró’s own account, “an inkwell tipped over on a desk and the tiny balls that were there run through the ink, leaving marks. This gave him the idea to first use a ball as the tip of a large pen that he used to mark boxes,” the Hungarian Biographical Lexicon writes.
In contrast, in his witty and entertaining autobiography not free from the twists and turns of adventure books, Csendes forradalom (a golyóstoll regénye) (Silent Revolution (The Novel of the Ballpoint Pen)), he writes that the idea came from the time when he worked as a journalist often visiting printing houses where the rotating discs of the printing presses made him wonder about using the same principle in writing instruments.
While we cannot be certain about how it happened exactly, what we know is that he presented the initial version of the pen already in 1931 at the Budapest International Fair. Later, they tried to introduce the ballpoint pen both to the German and American markets but there were some technical issues they had to face. Just to highlight one: it was for example important that the ink should dry quickly on the paper but not in the tube.
Bíró could only find the right one after he settled in Argentina when he filled the ballpoint pen with paint used to signal cracks in castings and marketed his pen in 1943 under the name Eterpen. In France, there was a public limited company set up to manufacture the new pen, which was marketed under the name BIC (Biró Crayon) becoming the most successful producer with over one hundred billion pieces sold to date and with one product even exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. This is how this inexpensive product brought the previous era of pens, best known for quills, dip pens and fountain pens, to an end. Is this good or bad?
“Ballpoint pens are in fact inexpensive but this is more or less all the good we can say about them as they mostly have disadvantages including in particular the form of handwriting,” says Gábor Megyeri, one of the founders of the Etelburg brand whose doctoral dissertation studies the role of the writing instruments and inks as well as the development of writing. He adds that ballpoint pens are in fact widely available, are useful at the post office and other offices, however, other pens including rollerball pens that are only a little more expensive allow much nicer handwriting and make writing a much better experience as they are comfortable.
Nevertheless, László Bíró remains one of the world’s most famous inventors and the ballpoint pen continues to be called biro pen or biro in short in many English-speaking countries. He died in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1985 under his Hispanicised name and his birthday has been Argentina’s Inventors’ Day for over three decades. However, most people do not forget to mention that he was born in Budapest and his innovation, despite its shortcomings, opened a new er
Gábor Megyeri hopes that the brand’s innovations will one day be known around the world and not only among the, otherwise large, group of experts of quality pens, businessmen and collectors. And that Hungarians will be proud that this was achieved based on local patents and the products were manufactured entirely in Hungary. “Our wish is that Etelburg’s innovations, the modular pens with extended lifetime and our special inks will one day be well-known and associated with Hungary.”
A golyóstoll mellett összesen 30 találmányát jegyzik a polihisztor Bíró Lászlónak. Source: Múlt-Kor online magazine
Csendes forradalom. A golyóstoll regénye, rövidített kiadás, Budapest, 1975.
Magyar Életrajzi Lexikon