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The Story of László Bíró, the Man Who Invented the Ballpoint Pen

László Bíró first sold the ballpoint pen in 1938, just before the onset of WWII

Photo: Micha

The pen may be mightier than the sword, but when Jewish-Hungarian journalist László Bíró invented the ballpoint pen in the 1930s clichéd sayings were probably the last thing on his mind.

In 1938, says the Wall Street Journal, “a simple but remarkable invention came into a world about to be convulsed by death and destruction.”

In their review of György Moldova’s book Ballpoint, which chronicles the life of Bíró, the Journal says,

We see Bíró refining the pen and experimenting with recipes for the ink paste essential to his concept while fleeing dangers that seemed to chase him across Europe as war brewed and then broke out.

In the early 1930s, while working as a journalist and artist, Bíró noticed that newspaper ink dried much more quickly than that from a fountain pen. The stylistic writing of a fountain pen uses liquid ink, which needs to flow from the tip to the page. The quick-drying ink used by printing presses was too thick to drip.

Contemplating the problem of how to deliver thick, quick-drying ink to a paper surface without requiring the ink to flow, Bíró saw a possible answer: closing the end of the pen instead of using a nib, leaving an opening with just enough room for a tiny metal ball that would spin against the ink in the reservoir, distributing it to the paper.

The basic design of the ballpoint pen persists to this day, but Bíró’s financial stake did not last nearly so long. In the years that followed, the inventor slowly lost shares in his company.

t one point he had to choose between keeping his remaining shares or selling them to help his family flee to Argentina. Understandably, he had no regrets about bartering to save lives. Yet Mr. Moldova rightly emphasizes the ultimate irony that “the inventor who conducted the thousands of experiments needed to perfect the ballpoint pen ended up without a penny of stock in the factory where they had taken place.” Inventors, beware!

 

More from Smithsonian.com:
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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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