The secret is not putting too fine a point on it

It's 50 years since the Biro hit Britain and put an end to blots, blotches and inkpots. Jonathan Sale pens a brief tribute

The Biro hit the shops of Britain 50 years ago. In the run-up to Christmas 1945, this was no el cheapo chuckaway item costing a few pence but a luxury purchase. At 55 shillings (pounds 2.75), it cost the weekly wage of a secretary. Yet within four years the new writing device was outselling old-fashioned fountain pens.

The launch of a rival ballpoint pen in the United States at the end of October 1945 had been equally spectacular. Despite the dubious advertising campaign promising "the first pen that writes under water", the New York store Gimbel's shifted almost 10,000 at $12.50 each. Notes to the milkman, and handwriting, would never be the same.

Strictly speaking, the ballpoint is not 50 years old but 100 - a primitive version dates back to 1895. Nothing came of this, nor of later patents of different designs that used ordinary ink stored in a pad stuffed down the barrel. The breakthrough came in 1938 when Laszlo Biro, Hungarian journalist, hypnotist and sculptor, was visiting the Budapest printers of an arts magazine which he edited. It dawned on him that a pen would be much more useful if its ink dried as quickly as his page proofs. Using ink that resembled runny jelly, he developed and patented the workable prototype of a blot-free pen.

Escaping to Paris from the German invasion, he became friendly with the President of Argentina, who invited him to develop his invention in Buenos Aires. Here Laszlo approached Henry Martin, a businessman visiting the area on British government business, who was intrigued by the idea that a Biro, unlike the rubber sack of a fountain pen, is unaffected by changes in air pressure. Martin was aware that navigators in bombers were suffering from ink splodges all over their calculations and set in train the manufacture of ballpoints both in Argentina and, together with the Miles Aircraft Company, in Britain.

The Biro became a crucial part of the British war effort. The Miles-Martin Pen Company turned a disused aircraft hangar near Reading into a Biro factory in which 20 young women banged out 30,000 ballpoints so that RAF staff could write for victory.

Meanwhile, back in Buenos Aires, the first Biros were being sold, retailing at the equivalent of pounds 25. Unfortunately, Laszlo had not got around to registering the patent in the US and so received no royalties from the massive sales at Gimbel's and other stores. He concentrated instead on his art; he also tried out a few other inventions, none of which had the ballpoint's success.

The ballpoint also made a household name of another entrepreneur. Baron Marcel Bich was a French plastics manufacturer who had, like Laszlo, a flash of inspiration. He made plastic components for pen manufacturers. While delivering a pile of disparate parts in the early Fifties, it occurred to him that he could come up with something a great deal simpler.

The result was the disposable Bic (the "h" was dropped to avoid any embarrassing confusion with "bitch") Crystal, launched in France in 1953. It is now the brand leader, retailing at about 18p. The theory is that you could draw a line more than 1.5 miles long before the ink, made to a secret, solvent-based formula, ran out.

Worldwide, 15 million Bic Crystals are sold every day, around half of the total of all ballpoints. In 1957 the French company took over the British competition but Lazslo lives on in the Biro Minor. When Baron Bich died in May 1994, he was the fifth-richest man in France.

But, calligraphically speaking, did Messrs Biro and Bich do our fingers a favour? Or did they leave us with a legacy of junk handwriting? My own ballpoint poised, I turned to Humphrey Lyttelton, president of the Society for Italic Handwriting, who produces as attractive a note on paper as he does from his trumpet. Would we be better off without ballpoints?

"The people who say that they make them scrawl are absolutely right. It is hard to do your nicest handwriting. It is comparable to doing figure- skating on ice with roller-skates. It gives a feeling of insecurity. You can't get that lovely even movement with uprights parallel to each other; they lean to the back or front."

But he does not write off ballpoints. "There is no doubt that they flow evenly and don't make holes in the paper. In fact, I say that it's a jolly good invention. It has the advantages of speed and guaranteed even flow - and with a calligraphy pen, you can't write letters in the bath."

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