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."

Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
peoplePamela Anderson rejects ice bucket challenge because of ALS experiments on animals
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
newsChester Zoo have revealed their newest members
sportLeague Managers' Association had described Malky Mackay texts as 'friendly banter'
Arts and Entertainment
tvSpielberg involved in bringing his 2002 film to the small screen
peopleCareer spanned 70 years, including work with Holocaust survivors
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Generalist HR Administrator, Tunbridge Wells, Kent - £28,000.

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Administrator - Tunbri...

    Head of IT (Not-for-Profit sector) - East Sussex

    £45000 - £50000 per annum + 5 weeks holiday & benefits: Ashdown Group: Head of...

    Supply Teaching jobs in Thetford

    £21588 - £31566 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education ar...

    KS1 teachers needed in Peterborough

    £110 - £125 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education are ur...

    Day In a Page

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape