History Matters: The Write Stuff

By David A. Fryxell Premium

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.

The first great leap in applying ink to paper came around 700 AD, with the introduction of the quill pen. Bird feathers’ hollow shafts were a perfect tube for holding ink; quills most commonly came from geese, but also from crows, eagles, swans, owls, hawks and turkeys.
Ancient Romans used styluses made of metals such as lead that left faint but readable marks on papyrus. But true pencils wouldn’t come until the 1564 discovery of a large graphite deposit in Borrowdale, England. Graphite wrote darker than lead, but the soft mineral had to be wrapped in string or inserted into a hollowed-out piece of wood.
In 1795, French painter and army officer Nicolas-Jacques Conté built a better pencil at the behest of the revolutionary leader Lazare Carnot. Blockaded by England, the fledgling French Republic was cut off from its primary source of graphite. Conté combined powdered graphite with clay and encased the mixture in wood, creating the modern pencil. (He also invented an eponymous pastel crayon still used by artists.)
Pencils were originally sharpened with the same “penknives” used to hone quill pens. Bernard Lassimore, a French mathematician, patented the first pencil sharpener in 1828. Another Frenchman, Therry des Estwaux, created the pencil sharpener we know in 1847.
Edward Naime, an English engineer, is credited with the first eraser to undo pencil mistakes in 1770, inspired by the importation of “India rubber.” Philadelphian Hyman Lipman first attached an eraser to the end of a pencil in 1858.
Pen manufacturers were not sitting idly by while the upstart pencil industry forged ahead. In 1809, Peregrin Williamson, a Baltimore shoemaker, received the first American patent for a steel pen, and Englishman John Scheffer attempted to manufacture a half-quill, half-metal pen in 1819.
Efforts to improve on inkwell dipping began in the early 1700s. John Jacob Parker patented the first self-filling fountain pen in 1833, but his design and others’ proved impractical and prone to spills. Then Lewis Waterman, an insurance salesman, was inspired after a leaky pen destroyed a valuable contract. In 1884, Waterman patented the first practical fountain pen, which employed an air hole in the nib and three grooves to smoothly tap “a fountain of ink.”
Refilling the fountain pen remained a challenge, albeit one with no shortage of solutions, such as the button filler, the click filler, the matchstick filler and Waterman’s own coin filler design. The reigning champion of the first half of the 20th century was the lever filler, invented by Walter Schaefer in 1908 and marketed by the W.A. Schaefer Pen Co. of Fort Madison, Iowa, in 1912. Ink cartridges began to replace this simple lever-action design about 1950.
By then, however, the newfangled ballpoint pen was hogging the spotlight. Biró wasn’t the first to experiment with such a mechanism: In 1888, Massachusetts tanner John Loud patented a complex pen that used four tiny balls and ink made from lampblack and castor oil. Designed to mark on leather and other rough surfaces, Loud’s pen had to be held straight up to write and never found a commercial application.

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.

Uncle Sam also wanted to equip US pilots with airworthy pens, prompting the Eberhard Faber Co. to pay $500,000 for American rights to the Birós’ ballpoint. The rights were later resold to the Eversharp Co.—setting up a postwar pen war.

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.

Neither Reynolds nor Eversharp’s ballpoints could live up to their hype, however, leading to a brief renaissance of the fountain pen. Two other inventors rescued the ballpoint from oblivion: Fran Seech, a Los Angeles chemist who lost his job when the ballpoint company he worked for went belly up, developed smear-proof ink and the retractable ballpoint. Patrick J. Frawley Jr. turned Seech’s inventions into the Paper­mate pen in 1949. And Frenchman Marcel Bich licensed the Birós’ technology; in 1950, he dropped the h from his name and introduced the inexpensive Ballpoint Bic.
Today, biro is a registered trademark of the Bic Corp. László Biró died in 1985 in Argentina, where his birthday, Sept. 29, is celebrated as Argentine Inventors Day. You might want to write that down.
circa 700 Quill pen invented
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
Fun Facts
Before the invention of the eraser, people rubbed away pencil mistakes with bread crumbs.
The best quill pens came from the five outer feathers of a crow’s left wing.
Most pencils are yellow because in the 1890s, manufacturers wanted a color that indicated the graphite came from China.
Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden (1854) using a pencil, which he probably got free from his father, one of the first US pencil makers.
From the May 2010 Family Tree Magazine