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DID YOU KNOW THIS: Like Ballpoint Pens? Then You Need to Thank the Royal Air Force

Sam Dickson

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The inventor of the ballpoint pen was Hungarian journalist Laszlo Biro, who was also a hypnotist, racecar driver, and Surrealist painter. Biro used a fountain pen while taking notes and became annoyed whenever the pen’s nib tore the page and splattered ink.

At a Budapest printshop Biro saw fast-drying ink and decided to use it in a fountain pen. The ink was too thick for the pen, however, so Biro and his brother designed a new one, replacing the nib with a ball bearing. Biro filed for a British patent on June 15, 1938.

During World War II, the Biro brothers fled the Nazis and settled in Argentina. There they met Henry Martin, an English accountant, who thought the pen would be of interest to the British Air Ministry. According to the Museum of Berkshire Aviation, Martin “knew that at high altitudes the ordinary nib-type pen tended to leak and was unsuited for use by R.A.F. air crews who had to make up their logs while in flight.”
Martin sent three Biro prototypes with the British Air attaché; when the pens languished in a drawer for three months, Martin met with representatives with the U.S. Army Air Forces; the Americans agreed to manufacture the pen. Martin traveled to London and, still wishing to show the prototypes to someone in the British Air attaché, finally met with someone in the Ministries of Supply and Aircraft Production. The prototypes were shown to Frederick George Miles, a British aircraft designer (of Miles Aircraft Ltd.), who offered to produce the pen. The Berkshire Aviation museum notes that “[British] government officials refused, on the grounds that all available materials and manpower…were needed for aircraft manufacture.” After more talks, the Ministry of Labour “agreed to permit seventeen unskilled girls at Miles Aircraft works to produce the pen” for the RAF. The RAF would order more than 30,000 Biros—known as the Eterpen—for their navigators.

Bíró was born in Budapest, Hungary  in 1899 into a Jewish family. He presented the first production of the ballpoint pen at the Budapest International Fair in 1931. While working as a journalist in Hungary, he noticed that the ink used in newspaper printing dried quickly, leaving the paper dry and smudge-free. He tried using the same ink in a fountain pen but found that it would not flow into the tip, as it was too viscous. Working with his brother György,a chemist, he developed a new tip consisting of a ball that was free to turn in a socket, and as it turned it would pick up ink from a cartridge and then roll to deposit it on the paper. Bíró patented the invention in Paris in 1938.

In 1943 the brothers moved to Argentina. On 10 June they filed another patent, issued in the USA as US Patent 2,390,636, and formed Biro Pens of Argentina (in Argentina the ballpoint pen is known as birome). This new design was licensed for production in the United Kingdom for supply to Royal Air Force aircrew, who found they worked much better than fountain pens at high altitude.

In 1945 Marcel Bich bought the patent from Bíró for the pen, which soon became the main product of his Bic company. László Bíró died in Buenos Aires in 1985. Argentina’s Inventors’ Day is celebrated on Bíró’s birthday, 29 September.

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