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.
At first, the Birós’ ballpoint looked hardly more promising. But they continued their work after arriving in Argentina at the invitation of the Argentine president himself, whom they met on holiday at Lake Balaton. Gathering investors, the Birós set up a manufacturing plant and grappled with how to make the ink flow to the ball. Gravity alone proved inadequate. Ultimately, their Eterpen combined gravity with capillary action (the same concept that causes the tiny holes of a sponge to fill with water) and could write even at an angle—or in an airplane. That caught the attention of Henry Martin, a principal in the British aircraft firm Miles-Martin, on a trip to Argentina. Martin found a market for the Eterpen with the Royal Air Force, which dubbed it the biro.
Milton Reynolds, a salesman from Chicago vacationing in Argentina, also had stumbled upon the Eterpen. Oblivious to the brothers’ extant patents, Reynolds copied their design and introduced the Reynolds Rocket. Crowds packed Gimbels Department Store for the pen’s unveiling in 1945, snapping up all 10,000 Rockets at $12.50 a pop. Reynolds guaranteed the pens would write for two years without needing refills, and later hired Hollywood swimming star Esther Williams to write with a Rocket underwater.
1564 Graphite discovered in Borrowdale, England
1662 Pencils first mass produced in Nuremberg, Germany
1795 Nicolas-Jacques Conté perfects the pencil
1822 Mechanical pencil invented
1861 First US pencil factory opens in New York City
1884 Lewis Waterman patents the first practical fountain pen
1888 John Loud patents an early ballpoint pen
1938 László Biró obtains ballpoint-pen patent
1945 First ballpoint pens sold in US for $12.50
1952 Sydney Rosenthal markets the Magic Marker