History Matters: The Write Stuff
Innovations and trends that shaped your ancestors’ lives. In this issue: pens.
Seventy-five years ago, a Hungarian journalist changed the way the world writes when he began the experiments that led to the invention of the ballpoint pen. Born in Budapest in 1899, László Biró had tried several careers—hypnotist, automobile racer, painter—before landing at the Elôtte newspaper. There, frustrated by fountain pens’ smearing and constant need for refilling, he noticed how—by contrast—the newspaper presses applied uniform layers of ink that dried relatively fast. In 1935, with his chemist brother Georg, Biró developed a pen with a tiny metal ball at the end of a tube of quick-drying ink. This ball point would control the flow of ink while also acting as a cap when the pen wasn’t in use, preventing the ink from drying out. The brothers patented the ballpoint pen in 1938, before fleeing war-torn Europe for Argentina. Even today, much of the world calls the now-ubiquitous ballpoint pen a “biro.”
Our ancestors were writing things down long before Biró’s bright idea, of course. The earliest examples took the form of cuneiform inscribed on clay tablets with sharpened reeds. The invention of ink, attributed to Chinese philosopher Tien-Lcheu in 2697 BC, made writing easier—especially because it paralleled the invention of paper. Originally a mix of soot and lamp oil with musk and gelatin from donkey skins, ink was common by 1200 BC. It became less disgusting by 400 AD, with the development of a bluish-black formula of iron salts, nut galls and gum that would be the standard for centuries.