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Ladislao José Biro invented a “miraculous” pen and changed the way we write

Ladislao Biro around 1978, 40 years after he created his famous pen.
Victor Sueiro
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Ladislao José Biro, who is honored in today’s Google Doodle for what would have been his 117th birthday, invented something mundane but transformative: the modern ballpoint pen.

Biro (whose first name is sometimes written as László) invented the ballpoint in 1938. The new invention was so exciting that when ballpoint pens were first sold in the US in 1945, hundreds of people lined up to buy them despite the fact that they cost more than $150 in today’s dollars.

That might be because the pens were advertised as "miraculous" — and, given that they replaced fountain pens that required frequent refills and could easily leak ink, they probably seemed that way. By 1959, a version of the miraculous pen cost one-tenth as much as it did when it debuted.

In the 78 years since it was invented, the pen has changed the way people write. Handwriting experts say that cursive writing doesn’t flow as naturally with ballpoint pens, since they require more pressure.

The invention may even have helped save Biro’s life and that of his family during World War II, as he fled persecution by the Nazis.

Biro wasn’t the first to come up with a ballpoint pen — but his was the first to really catch on

Row of ballpoint pens
You can even make chandeliers out of ballpoint pens, as the Science Museum in London did for the 100th anniversary of Bakelite plastic in 2007.
Bruno Vincent/Getty Images

Before the invention of the ballpoint pen, most people wrote with fountain pens, which required ink cartridges to refill, had old-fashioned nibs, and could easily leak. But inventors had been trying to come up with an alternative for decades before Biro came up with the ballpoint. John Loud, an American lawyer, patented a version of the ballpoint in 1888, but while the pen could write on leather and cloth, it couldn’t write on paper.

When Biro, a Hungarian, invented his version of the ballpoint pen, he was working as a journalist, but he’d previously been a medical student and an insurance salesman. He got the idea for the ballpoint pen from newspaper printing presses, which dried much more quickly than fountain pen ink by using a rolling cylinder.

But to create the ballpoint mechanism himself — as György Moldova recounted in his 2012 book Ballpoint — Biro was inspired by something much less technologically advanced: a child playing with marbles.

As James Ward wrote for the Wall Street Journal:

A cylinder could only roll backward and forward, while a pen needs to move in all directions. … Looking out the window, [Biro] saw a group of children playing marbles in the street. It had been raining, and one boy rolled a marble through a puddle. As it rolled along the pavement, it left a line of water in its wake. With that inspiration, the ballpoint was born.

Ballpoint pens rely on a tube of ink that’s thicker and dries more quickly than the ink a fountain pen would use. Instead of a nib, there’s a small rotating metal ball. The ball is held tightly in a socket to stop air from drying out the ink. But it still rolls around, allowing it to pick up ink and transfer it to paper.

Just months after Biro, who worked with his brother, a chemist, developed his idea in 1938 and signed a contract with a business partner to produce and market it, he had to flee Hungary.

How World War II shaped the ballpoint pen and Biro’s life

Biro was Jewish. And Hungary, which was at the time allied with Nazi Germany, was becoming an increasingly hostile place for Jews. In April 1938, Hungary passed laws limiting Jews’ ability to work; later that year, a law was passed banning the exportation of intellectual property.

So Biro, who claimed to have converted to Christianity, left the country, carrying his plans with him, before the law went into effect. He and his brother traveled from Budapest to Paris, Madrid, and finally Argentina, where Biro began manufacturing the pens commercially.

The United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force was the most important customer. Fountain pens, which leaked at high altitudes and couldn’t write on a notepad held up against the wall, weren’t ideal for keeping flight logs, and so despite the fact that the early versions were expensive, the RAF ordered 30,000.

But Biro didn’t profit as much as he could have from his invention. He ended up selling the last of his shares in the company, Peter Pesic wrote in a review of Ballpoint in the Wall Street Journal, when he needed money to get his family out of Argentina. "Understandably, he had no regrets about bartering to save lives," Pesic wrote.

Ballpoint pens changed handwriting forever

It’s common these days to hear complaints that texting, typing, or Common Core are killing off kids’ ability to write cursive. But when the ballpoint pen first became popular, it faced a flood of similar arguments. People have been complaining about the decline of handwriting since the 1960s, when ballpoint pens became popular.

Writing at the Atlantic in 2015, John Giesbrecht made the case that the ballpoint pen — and not personal computers — is responsible for the decline of formal handwriting, particularly cursive. Ink flows differently from ballpoint pens, he wrote, making it more natural to separate letters (in print) than to join them together (in cursive).

"Perhaps it’s not digital technology that hindered my handwriting, but the technology that I was holding as I put pen to paper," Giesbrecht wrote. "Fountain pens want to connect letters. Ballpoint pens need to be convinced to write, need to be pushed into the paper rather than merely touch it."

Ballpoint pens may also have made writing for long periods of time less comfortable. Giesbrecht quotes a handwriting expert who points out that even though the pens worked differently, children were still taught to hold them the same way they would fountain pens — even though that grip is uncomfortable when using a ballpoint, which needs to be held at a slightly different angle in order to work best. The result is that people’s hands cramp more easily, and they’re less likely to want to write by hand.

Biro was no stranger to these complaints about deteriorating handwriting skills when he was alive. But he mostly shrugged them off. The Guardian quoted his daughter, Mariana, in 2008:

The Biro was my father's greatest invention. I'm so proud that the name lives on. He used to hear people say the ballpoint was ruining writing skills. He would smile and say, "Well, writing comes from the heart. If we can help the hand to perform the task, what is so wrong with that?"

As the Los Angeles Times wrote on Biro’s death in 1985: "He leaves a legacy in every shirt pocket, and a Hungarian-born word in Spanish dictionaries — la birome," the ballpoint pen.