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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 November 2006, 13:14 GMT
Did Biros really revolutionise writing?
By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

Happy birthday, one and all
Fifty-seven Bic Biros are sold every second (and then "borrowed" by passing colleagues) - not bad for a 60-year-old product. But did the pens really make that much of a difference?

It was a familiar frustration that led to the invention of the modern ball-point pen - leaky ink.

In 1938, Hungarian newspaper journalist Laszlo Biro noticed the ink used on the printing presses dried quickly and so tried using it in a fountain pen to avoid the problem of leaks, blots and smudges.

But the ink was too thick to flow into the nib. So Biro, with the help of his brother, a chemist, devised a pen tipped with a metal ball bearing that used capillary action to draw ink through the rotating ball.

They brought their invention with them when they fled to the West during a crackdown on Jews later that year. A British firm took over the patent to produce pens for the RAF, and the first Biros went on sale in the UK 60 years ago this week.

Barring tweaks and improvements, the pen is still recognisable as the ball-point Biro devised to make writing easier, and it regularly features in top 100 design lists, says Libby Sellers, the curator of the Design Museum.

"It has worked so well for so long that you stop noticing it. It does what it says it should be doing, like the paper clip and the Post-It note."

But was it revolutionary? "That's a big word, but it made writing easier. No longer did you need to worry about ink spills or refills. To be mobile and reliable are two amazing things to be able to accommodate into such a small and humble object.

"What is remarkable is Biro's lateral thinking in bringing existing technologies together to create an everyday object that everyone could write with. Ball bearings already existed. Quick-drying ink already existed. And so did roller-balls, in deodorants."

Pen or pencil?

Among the first Britons to use the pens were the RAF's fighter pilots, for whom the pens proved something of a revelation.

"Fountain pens can explode or at least leak at high altitudes, so to have a reliable pen with you in the cockpit to note down important markers helped win the war," says Miss Sellers.

What about pencils? "You have to sharpen pencils, they're not as user-friendly."

There is an old and oft-repeated rumour that because standard pens don't work in zero-gravity, Nasa spent millions devising a space pen, while the Russians used pencils.

But this has been debunked, not least because - strange to say - pencils pose dangers in space, from broken-off tips floating about and graphite and wood being flammable in a pure oxygen atmosphere. And it was not Nasa which developed the space pen, but inventor Paul Fisher, and it was adopted by both sides in the space race by 1968.

Fit for purpose

While not the first everyday object in which manufacturers made a priority of user convenience, the Bic Biro is a fine example of what happens when an object is designed to make something that is easy to use.

I get asked to do artworks on trainers and T-shirts, so it's great that it doesn't wash off
Artist Jon Burgerman
"If a designer thinks about how it works and what are all the qualifications that might entail, they're asking the right questions," says Miss Sellers.

Nor does she see the pens being superseded by technology. Yes, a passing thought can easily be typed into a handheld device or a text message, but a ball-point doesn't need batteries to work. It needs ink, but most have long since been lost, borrowed or stolen before running out.

The one thing that hasn't been cracked is washable ink - as anyone who has inadvertently left a ball-point pen in a pocket will attest. For artist Jon Burgerman, who specialises in Biro works (see Internet links, right), that is part of the pen's charm.

"It's the ingenious rolling of that little ball. If you put one in your bag without a lid, you're asking for it.

"I like that the ink's indelible - I get asked to do artworks on trainers and T-shirts, so it's great that it doesn't wash off. It's easy to customise stuff without bothering with fabric paints. That's invaluable for me, as a poor artist. I like Biros, pens are my friends."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

With apologies to John Burgerman, anyone doubting the ability to create truly artistic works with a humble ballpoint pen should look at Henry Moore's drawings of sheep.
Malcolm Parker, Basingstoke

The first Biro pens cost about a pound in the 1940s, not much different from the price of a good fountain pen. The other thing I remember from the early days is that our schoolteachers were dead against Biro pens because they were supposed to have a bad effect on handwriting.
Malcolm Baird, Hamilton, Canada

I often say that Mr Biro is one of my personal heroes. Why? Because I'm left-handed. They make a huge difference.
Emma Stace, Coulsdon, UK

According to Stephen Fry on QI, normal biros work fine in zero gravity. So why did Paul Fisher bother to develop the space pen? Or would I be write (please excuse the pen, I mean pun) in thinking the use of the word "space" was merely a mark-it-ing tool? I'll get my coat.
DS, Bromley, England

Fair point about the pencils, but that's precisely why you DON'T use a pure oxygen environment in a spaceship... three men burnt to death on the launch pad in Apollo 1 and Nasa switched to an air atmosphere after that. Pure oxygen is far too dangerous.
Peter, Nottingham

Sorry ball-point-pen. I'm two years older than you and I still prefer fountain pens (they have washable ink)and pencil (easily erased). Enjoy your fame and I'll continue to retain my individuality.
Annie B, Santa Cruz de Tenerife/Spain

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