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  • László Bíró's invention - the "biro" ballpoint pen had not only set him off on a life-changing adventure, it was to become an innovation known world-wide |Photo: PXhere
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Writing from the heart

Tal Hartuv - 27 October 2022

In 1938, without any persuasion from Germany, the government of Hungary adopted the notorious Nuremberg Laws which had severe implications for the 846,000 Jewish community living there. Among multiple decrees, Jews, who were now defined as a person with 2 Jewish grandparents, found themselves thrown out of jobs, forbidden to mix or marry with non-Jews and barred from public spaces. Yet even though things had taken a turn for the worse, there was not one Jew in Hungary who could have ever foreseen the future dispossession, deportation, and industrial murder of nearly half a million of their community which would take a mere eight weeks.

“In 1938, without any persuasion from Germany, the government of Hungary adopted the notorious Nuremberg Laws”

During the beginning of these troubles for the Hungarian Jewish community, journalist László Bíró was at work one day when he noticed two things: Firstly, he saw that newspaper ink dried more quickly than that of his fountain pen which required ink cartridges, old-fashioned nibs, and could easily leak. Secondly, when he looked out the window while thinking if and when to flee Hungary, he noticed  a group of children playing marbles. It had been raining, and one boy tossed a marble through a puddle. As it rolled along the pavement, it left a line of water in its wake.

László József Bíró | Photo: Victor Sueiro 1979

Thus was born the inspiration for the ballpoint pen, because Bíró realised that for the ink to flow smoothly in a fountain pen, the nib needed to move in all directions – just like that marble!

With one eye on Hitler and the other on creating and manufacturing his invention, Bíró worked night and day because time was running out: Hungary was due to pass a Nazi law later that year, banning the exportation of intellectual property. But with sheer hard work he devised a pen with an opening which had just enough room for a tiny metal ball that spun against the ink and distributed it to the paper.

He managed to patent his design, put it on the stock market, and make enough money to sell his shares which enabled him and his family to escape Hungary at the eleventh hour and land safely in Argentina  – just days before the law came into effect.

His invention of the ballpoint pen had not only set him off on a life-changing adventure, it was to become an innovation known world-wide.

 

“Biro’s biggest customer was England’s Royal Air Force. Fountain pens weren’t suitable for flight logs”

In Argentina he began manufacturing the pens on a commercial level. His biggest customer was England’s Royal Air Force. Fountain pens weren’t suitable for flight logs. They leaked at high altitudes and couldn’t write on a notepad held up against the wall. Biro of course was only too pleased to do his part to help kill the Nazis vis-a-vis his clients, the Royal Air Force who, although too late for the Jews, nevertheless bombed Germany.

After the war his sales increased, but not everyone liked his pen. Some thought it was the cause of bad handwriting. But after witnessing the decimation of his people, Biro shrugged off the complaints. “Writing comes from the heart, “ he told the complainers. “If I can help the hand to perform that task, then what on earth is wrong with that?”

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