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Celebrating ballpoint brilliance

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With around 14 million sold every day around the world, the Bic Biro is used, abused and taken for granted on a grand scale that belies its interesting and chequered history.

The first patent for a ballpoint pen was issued in 1888 to John Loud, a leather tanner who wanted an instrument that would write on his products. Although his pen could mark rough surfaces such as leather it was too coarse for letter writing and was not commercially viable.

Between 1904 and 1946 a number of variations on the ballpoint pen were invented, but none could get the ink viscosity quite right so that they all either leaked or clogged.

László Bíró, a Hungarian newspaper editor, invented one such version and filed a British patent in 1938. While earlier versions of the ballpoint relied on gravity to deliver ink to the ball, so that the pen had to be held vertically, Bíró’s original pen used capillary action and a piston that pressurised the ink column. Later models had a spring that kept pressure on the piston, and still later versions used just gravity and capillary action.

Bíró fled Germany in 1941 and moved to Argentina, where he started selling pens with his brother under the Birome brand. Bíró’s new design was licensed by the British, who made the pens for the Royal Air Force because they worked much better than fountain pens at altitude.

Ballpoint pens fell out of favour in the late 1940s as the public became fed up with their persistent failings. But in the US in the 1950s Patrick J. Frawley marketed his Papermate design, with its retractable ballpoint tip and no-smear ink.

Frawley used a high-risk promotional strategy. His salesmen would barge into the offices of retail store buyers and scribble over their shirts with the new pens, offering to replace the shirts if the ink failed to wash out.

Another important name in pen history is the Frenchman Marcel Bich, who made pen holders and cases. Bich paid the Bíró brothers a royalty on their patent and studied the construction of every ballpoint on the market. In 1952 he launched the Ballpoint Bic, a clear-barrelled, smooth-writing, non-leaky ballpoint that we call the Biro. Many Bic models still have “Biro” written on their side as testament to their primary inventor.

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