Biro, the ballpoint pen

The ballpoint pen, commonly known as the biro, was born in the 1940s, thanks to the intuition of the Hungarian writer László Bíró. The author, to overcome the drawbacks of the fountain pen, created a ball mechanism to release the ink onto paper with quick drying times and without stains. Today the ballpoint pen has a simple and effective mechanism, which makes it the most widely used writing instrument in the world.

The ballpoint pen: what is it?

Originally conceived as a reliable alternative to the fountain pen, today the ballpoint pen (the famous biro, named after its inventor) is certainly the most used tool for writing. Unlike the fountain pen, which releases ink through a nib, the ballpoint pen is composed of an internal reservoir, the refill, which deposits the ink on the paper through a rolling metal sphere. Like the nib for the fountain pen, the ball of the ballpoint pen can have different sizes and is usually made of steel, carbon, or tungsten carbide, an inorganic material that is among the hardest substances in existence, used for tools or jewelry.

The history of the biro

The idea of a ball mechanism to apply ink on paper with a reliable mechanism came about as early as the 19th century. More precisely, the first patent referring to the idea of a ballpoint pen goes back to 1888. It is the result of the work and ingenuity of John J. Loud, a leather tanner who was looking for an innovative way to write on leather, seeing as fountain pens with their delicate nibs did not allow it. This is where the concept of an instrument consisting of a tube, a reservoir containing the ink, takes shape, which then passes over the paper through a rotating sphere.

Loud had found a way to write on leather, but his ballpoint pen model was still too crude and did not allow a precise stroke on paper. The sphere was still too large and heavy, the excessive fluidity of the ink did not dry easily and stained the sheet; for this reason its patent did not lead on to becoming a mass product.

László Bíró, the inventor of the ballpoint pen

It is in this context that the intuition of László Bíró, a writer and journalist born in 1889 in Budapest, Hungary and a naturalized Argentine, fits in. Bíró was looking for a faster and simpler writing tool than the fountain pen, which certainly had several drawbacks, such as long drying times, staining, and the need for frequent refills.

Legend has it that the idea of adopting the ball mechanism came to him while observing boys playing marbles on the street: after crossing puddles, the marbles left a rather uniform strip of mud on the ground behind them. Bíró’s intuition therefore consisted in reproducing that mechanism, inserting a rotating sphere on the sheet of paper under an ink tube. He then asked his brother Giorgy for help, a chemist by profession, who made a fundamental contribution to the success of the project. In fact, if the concept of a ball mechanism for writing was not totally new, what made it effective this time, was the idea of using it with a more viscous and denser ink, less fluid, and quick drying. Therefore, Bíró’s fundamental innovation is precisely the combination of the ball mechanism with a high viscosity ink, inspired by the one used to print newspapers, which the writer from Budapest developed together with his brother.

In 1938, Bíró patented his pen model in Great Britain. A few years later, he fled to Argentina with his brother, and in 1941 formed the Bírós Pen of Argentina, with which he gave the impetus for the spread of the ballpoint pen all over the world. Marcel Bich, a naturalized French Italian industrialist, was instrumental in spreading it in Europe. After having bought the patent, he perfected the model, giving life to the Bic pen, the most famous and utilised disposable ballpoint pen in the world today.

The components: how a biro works

Just as the nib is the true soul of the fountain pen, the sphere is the heart of the ballpoint pen. It is a meticulously polished steel ball, designed down to the smallest detail to transfer the ink from the ink chamber to the paper in the best possible way.
The ball is perfectly spherical, with a diameter that can range from 0.38mm to 1.6mm, inserted into the tip of the ballpoint pen, which is usually made of plastic, brass, nickel silver or stainless steel. The ink is contained inside a plastic straw (the reservoir) and passes over the sphere through a set of tiny ridges.

The refill release mechanism can be snap-on or rotating. The refill is nothing more than a metal tube that contains the ink and ends with a sphere, which, sliding on the paper, allows you to write. So it represents the true heart of the pen, and on that depend the fluidity, the smoothness and therefore the quality of writing. Generally speaking, it can be said that the medium-low range pens are snap-on, while the high-end ones use the twist mechanism, which is certainly more precise and elegant.

A most curious thing is that the ballpoint pen can be more or less valuable, with a click or rotation mechanism, when covered with precious materials and produced by the most famous brands. The most important and decisive part for writing, however, is the refill. You can therefore insert a high quality refill in a low cost pen (obviously compatible with the original refill) and write more pleasantly than with a fine pen with a poor refill. Of course, the materials, the mechanism, the balance, the handling and therefore the quality (of the casing) of the pen have their importance, but to a lesser extent.

The same thing happens for the roller, which we talk about here.