Innovators through history: Laszlo Biro

Innovators through history: Laszlo Biro

To mark the launch of the NZ Innovators Awards for 2012, we're celebrating a series of vaunted innovators and inventors throughout time.

Biro ballpoint pen

Photo: Daniel Schwen, Wikimedia Commons

Who: Laszlo Biro

What: The ballpoint pen – the first pen to have a ball bearing at its tip instead of a nib like its predecessor the fountain pen. Biro, a Hungarian newspaper editor and publisher, was frustrated by the frequent smudges left by his fountain pen, the time he wasted refilling the ink, and how often its nib tore through the newsprint he worked with. Inspiration struck and the ballpoint pen was born, a joint effort between Biro and his chemist brother Georg.

When: 1935

Impact: The brothers first invented their ballpoint pen in 1935, but it wasn’t without its problems – it depended on gravity to get the ink flowing down to the tip, which meant the pen only worked when held straight up, and even then the ink flow wasn’t consistent, prone to leaving messy globs on the page. It wasn’t until a few years later when the brothers improved their ink formulation and the operation of the ball at the tip.

Power, Fame and Money: It’s not clear just how wealthy Biro became off the back of his invention – although he was able to sell the improved version in Argentina, where he and his brother had based their operations, the pens still had a few design flaws, and didn’t exactly fly off the shelves. However, the reformulated ink in the ballpoint pens meant that they worked much better than fountain pens at high altitudes, and in 1944 the British government bought the patent for the design from Biro. Other manufacturers later built on Biro’s idea and competition in the ballpoint pen market grew fierce, before Marcel Bich’s Bic pens and Patrick Frawley’s Papermate pens came out on top.

Legacy: Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine life without the easy convenience of the humble ballpoint pen. Although Biro’s initial design may have been a bit sketchy, without his ideas the modern pen as we know it might never have been invented. In some countries the ballpoint pen is still called a “Biro” and in Argentina, Inventor’s Day is celebrated on Biro’s birthday, September 29. 

Have you got a great idea? Want an Inventor’s Day of your own? Then enter yourself or someone you know into the Innovators Awards. Entries open now. 

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