Sometimes the road to entrepreneurism requires a walk into a business totally different than your own.
Coming up, how printer’s ink led to the birth of the modern ballpoint pen.
Prior to the ballpoint pen, most people had two choices in writing instruments: A pencil, or a fountain pen. And while fountain pens were wonderful instruments, letting a writer’s words literally flow across a page, they could also be very messy. Ink could spill across table tops, get onto clothes, or saturate paper.
That was the situation in the 1930s when Laszlo Biro walked into a print shop in Budapest Hungary.
Lazlo was a magazine editor at the time, and was visiting the print shop where his publication was printed. There he saw that the printer’s ink dried quickly, without smudging – and got an idea. Why not give the average writer the same kind of convenience?
Biro asked his brother Georg, a chemist to develop a thicker, more glutinous ink, while he tackled the mechanical problem – coming up with a solution to replace the “nib” – used by fountain pens.
What Biro developed was a small steel ball in a brass casing, connected to a plastic ink supply chamber. Pressing the ball against a sheet of paper made it revolve, transferring ink from the chamber to the paper – where it dried almost instantly. Removing pressure from the ballpoint stopped the ink from flowing.
It was a truly great innovation – the first writing instrument with spill-proof ink.
Biro patented his new concept as the ballpoint pen. The principle of the ballpoint actually dated to an 1888 patent owned by John J. Loud for a product to mark leather. However, it wasn’t commercially exploited. To protect their idea, the Biros 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. It was there that Lazlo Biro got a second patent, and applied his concept to high-end pens, costing as much as $40 – a fortune in the 1940s.
He 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 – or pilots. They could even be used to write upside down in flight, if need be. The invention was so unique that for a time it was referred to as just “The Biro.”
In 1950, Lazlo Biro sold the patent rights for his invention to another man — French fountain pen maker Baron Marcel Bich – spelled B-I-C-H. Bich dropped the last letter of his name and founded the Bic Pen Company – and the rest is history.
Bic took the ballpoint to a whole new level, with an innovation we take for granted today — low-cost disposable ink pens. He put ergonomically designed, high tech writing instruments in the hands of everyday people starting in 1950 with the Bic “Cristal” – the first disposable ballpoint. A pen with a clear barrel so you could monitor how much ink you had left. (Bic brags you can write 1,475 Christmas Cards –2 kilometers of writing – with a single Bic ballpoint pen.)
Over the years, Bic continued to innovate, introducing the tungsten carbon ballpoint in 1961. And eventually extended the brand to embrace Bic disposable lighters and disposable shavers. Today the company even sells windsurf boards, surfboards, and kayaks under the Bic brand.
And to think, all of that sprung from a single invention – Lazlo Biro’s ballpoint pen!
Laszlo Biro exemplifies an Axiom on our website: 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?