Brothers László and Georg Bíró, Hungarian refugees living in Argentina, patent the ballpoint pen. A half-century-old idea is coming to commercial fruition.
Lewis Waterman's invention of a practical fountain pen
, patented in 1884, had solved the problem of portability. You no longer had to carry around an inkwell to be able to write when and where you wanted. But the ink still took awhile to dry and was subject to running and smudging.
American banker John L. Loud patented a ballpoint pen in 1888. It used a ball-and-socket
to deliver sticky, quick-drying ink. Too sticky: The ink was so coarse, it didn't really work well on paper. (It was a good idea on paper, except literally.) It did find industrial uses for writing on leather and cloth
László Bíró was a Hungarian journalist who saw an idea in the quick-drying inks newspapers use. His brother Georg, a chemist, helped him with technical aspects. They used a tiny -- and precisely ground -- ball bearing to serve two functions. It distributed ink evenly from the cartridge to the paper for writing, and it contained the rest of the ink inside the cartridge.
The Bíró brothers made progress on improving the ballpoint to the point, so to speak, that it could write as smoothly as a fountain pen. But the situation in their homeland was deteriorating. When World War II started, they fled from Budapest to Paris, then to Madrid
and finally to Buenos Aires, Argentina.
There, they applied for a patent
and sought financial backing. One of their contacts, an English accountant named Harry Martin, realized that the ballpoint solved a problem faced by Britain's Royal Air Force: Conventional pens were unsuitable for writing aircraft logs, because they leaked, were too sensitive to changes in atmospheric pressure, and wouldn't let you write on a vertical or overhead surface.
Martin eventually flew to Washington and London, convincing both the U.S. Air Force and the RAF to adopt the new technology. By the time the Allies won the war, the ballpoint shared the luster of victory.
When the pens went into commercial production in 1945, they were a sensation. In the United States, the Reynolds Pen sold for $12.50 (about $150 in today's money). Yet people swarmed a New York department store to buy 8,000 of them on the first day of sale.
What? People lining up
to be the first to buy new technology? Where have we heard that before? You mean, it happened in the old days, too?
Some of the earliest versions of commercial ballpoints leaked and smudged, but manufacturers eventually worked the bugs out. What? A technology brought to market before it's quite ready? How could that be?
Today, the ballpoint is what most people mean when they say just pen
. And in much of the world, the generic name for a ballpoint pen is biro
. In Argentina, by the way, it's a birome
Source: BBC h2g2
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