In Praise of the Biro
SIXTY YEARS ago last month an item went on sale in Britain for the first time that would conquer the world. It was looked down on by many as cheap and nasty but it nevertheless has overcome most of that prejudice – the Biro pen. The most common version, the BiC Crystal sells some 14 million pens a day worldwide. Check your own pockets, handbag, briefcase or schoolbag. You’ve probably got at least one somewhere about you.
The good thing about this wonderful invention is that they still have a place in this digital age. You don’t have to worry if the batteries are fully charged up. They write for over a mile without stopping and they are cheap to replace when they die or are lost or ‘borrowed’ by someone else. I like using computers. They have revolutionised the task of putting together your favourite magazines or papers like the one you are reading now. But it all starts with the humble biro pen. If I'’ watching a film, a play or if I’m at a gig it would be too distracting to start typing away into a laptop. It’s much more discreet to scribble a few notes into a little notepad and type them up later. The biro is ideal for this task.
There were attempts to patent earlier types of ballpoint pens in the late nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries but none of these were reliable. Laszlo Biro, a Hungarian newspaper editor was frustrated by messy nib pens. The sharp nibs tore paper and were very messy. Newspaper ink, he noticed, was quite thick and dried almost immediately, doing away with the need for blotting paper. In co-operation with his brother George, he came up with a way to feed quick-drying ink through a tube tipped with a rotating steel ball bearing in a socket. This rotated as the pen moved across the page letting the ink flow evenly through capillary action. It was the world’s first practical ballpoint pen.
The Biro brothers fled Hungary in the run-up to the Second World War and set up shop in Argentina. The Biro pen was patented in 1943 and taken up by the Royal Air Force. Fountain pens had a tendency to flood at high altitudes in unpressurised aeroplanes. The new invention was adopted by the RAF because it proved to be immune to this problem. By the end of the Forties it became very popular for the military as it could write for up to a year without needing a refill.
The next step in the evolution of the biro came from a Frenchman, Marcel Bich. He brought out the rights to the pen, reformulated the ink and founded the BiC Company to make inexpensive ballpoint pens. He used a shortened form of his name Bich as it would be easy to remember and it would avoid any mispronunciation problems in English. By the early Sixties the Bic Crystal dominated the pen market – a place it still has today.
There have been a few changes in its basic design over the past sixty years. The ventilated cap is less dangerous if accidentally swallowed; the hexagonal barrel prevents it rolling on the floor and the ballpoint of tungsten carbide is harder to dent if you drop it on the floor. It’s no wonder that it has become recognised as a design classic. Here, hear to that decision.
Many traditionalist teachers maintained that the biro ruined good handwriting and banned them from schools but the French government led the way by approving the BiC Crystal for use in the nation’s schools.
They were still forbidden when I attended Abbott’s Cross Primary School in the Sixties. We were forced to use fountain pens or cartridge pens. This was a matter of great annoyance for me as I am left-handed. Right-handed folks pull their pens over their work so their hand is clear of the parts of the page they have just written on. We lefties push our pens over our work, and have a tendency to drag our pen hand over the still wet ink, leaving a mess of smudges behind us on the page. You can’t believe my joy when I moved on to Rathcoole Secondary School in 1969 and discovered that I was allowed to use the biro. It was liberating! To some folk the humble biro may be cheap and nasty. To me it’s revolutionary. I doubt if it can be bettered.