UK: Business Legends - Inventor whose fame is writ large.

UK: Business Legends - Inventor whose fame is writ large. - Observation of the quick-drying qualities of printers ink led Laszlo Biro to produce the ballpoint, which forms the basis of today's mass-produced pen market.

by Rhymer Rigby.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Observation of the quick-drying qualities of printers ink led Laszlo Biro to produce the ballpoint, which forms the basis of today's mass-produced pen market.

Ladislao Biro belongs to that select group of inventor-businessmen whose names were curiously indicative of their destinies. Charles Mackintosh's moniker, for instance, was perfect for the man who invented the raincoat perennial; likewise it should come as no surprise that Christopher ('Kit' to his mates) Cat had a hand in devising the chocolate-biscuit confection of the same name. Thus, with a surname as perfectly apt as Biro, Ladislao's destiny always lay in writing implements - why, even Mr Bich had to lop off his terminal 'h' before he had a nom de plume half as good.

Biro was born in Hungary in 1899 as Laszlo (the Latinisation would come later). His early life, if not exactly thrilling, was fairly precocious: at 17, for example, he invented a manual washing machine for which he received a substantial sum. He later joined Hungary's Royal Academy of Sciences. Details may be hazy but, given that he eventually plumped for a casual, dilettante media career, he was hardly living a hand-to-mouth existence.

By the 1930s, Biro found himself editing a government-sponsored cultural magazine and it was a chance discovery here that would lead to the so-called 'third age' of the pen. Biro had a natural inventive bent and, on a visit to the printers, was struck by the qualities of the unctuous, quick-drying ink that they used. This, he thought, could be 4954put to good use in a pen, though clearly not a fountain pen. Instead, in 1938, what he came up with was a crude ballpoint pen. Unfortunately, under Nazi occupation, market conditions in Eastern Europe were less than ideal and Laszlo, along with his brother George, fled to Paris. In 1940, apparently after an invitation from its president, he moved to Argentina. The president was said to have seen Biro using his then unheard-of writing implement at a Yugoslav resort.

Safely holed up in Buenos Aires, Biro's work continued and, in 1943, he filed a patent for his invention. Shortly afterwards, a visiting Brit, Henry Martin, decided that Biro's pen could play its part in the war effort - air crews found scribbling navigational calculations very difficult at high altitudes. Martin sought and found backers and together they formed a company, giving Biro around a third of the shares. But Biro's family was still back in Hungary and he immediately liquidated most of his stake to bring them over to Argentina.

The pen was a great success and was soon being produced in Buenos Aires and Britain (for the RAF). The US rights were bought by the Eversharp Company and Eberhard-Faber for around two million dollars but they failed to patent the pen in the US, and a Chicago businessman, Milton Reynolds, who had been visiting Buenos Aires, spotted the pen, liked it and copied it. Within a month of Biro's deal, 'Reynold's Rocket' was on the US market and, priced at $12.50, achieved overnight success. Eversharp sued Reynolds for infringement of its rights but, as it had no US patent, the case failed.

Competition was not such a disaster, however, as biromania gripped America and both firms prospered. Yet, what the ball-point-crazed public initially failed to notice was that the pens lived up to precious few of their manufacturers' rather ludicrous claims. The fad waned and, by 1948, sales had slumped: the fountain pen reigned supreme once more. As a result, Reynolds' venture collapsed in 1951, while Eversharp sold its pen division to Parker six years later and eventually liquidated its remaining assets in the 1960s. Parker had brought out the 'Jotter', a pen with a superior ball and cartridge. This actually worked and, in the mid-1950s, dominated the market.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the French magnate, Michael Bich, was gearing up for world-wide pen domination. Keenly aware of the need for a catchy name, he dropped the 'h' and formed Bic. By the late 1950s, Bic held 70% of the European market and, after buying New York-based Waterman, moved into the US where it soon became the dominant player. Other well-known companies moved into smaller, more upmarket niches and this status quo in the mass-produced pen market has survived almost unchanged for the last 30 years.

As for Ladislao himself, he left the pen world in 1947 to concentrate on his surrealist painting and to work on other inventions, many of which were appreciable, if rather more modest, successes. In 1985, after a brief illness, the man whose invention has ruined more shirt pockets than any other, passed away quietly at his home in Buenos Aires.

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