The next time you doodle on your note pad, or smear your shirt with ink, or scrawl a lover's number on a matchbook, remember Mr. Biro.
Jose Ladislao Biro (or Laszlo Jozsef Biro, as some records would have it) died Thursday in Buenos Aires, the city where -- on June 10, 1943 -- he patented the ball point pen. He was 86.
Biro's brainstorm made it to the United States two years later, introduced to this country by Milton Reynolds. "The first sale of ball points to Gimbels in New York was so successful, extra units had to be flown in by the planeload to meet opening-day demand," says Norman Liss, spokesman for the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association. "Biro's pen was the first one to function well on the market." It sold, in 1945, for $12.50.
Many people had worked on creating a ball point -- an American named John Loud took out one patent in 1888 -- but the inks available at first were too heavy. It was Biro who made things really flow.
Biro was a Hungarian writer, painter and inventor who began trying to refine the instrument before World War II. Obliged to escape the Nazi threat, he fled to Argentina in 1940. His pen hit the Buenos Aires market in 1945. Henry Martin, Biro's financial backer, bought the rights and introduced the pen to the world through the Royal Air Force, which had been seeking an instrument that could write at high altitude.
In the 1940s, there were technical problems, as heavy, messy inks continued to clog up the works. Sales plummeted, and the ball point achieved a more humble unit price of 50 cents. But the industry took off in the 1950s when better inking methods were developed. According to WIMA statistics, 300 million pens were sold in 1957. By 1960, that figure had more than doubled.
The ball point, which bypassed the fountain pen years ago, also outsells the pencil, and its manufacturers can be found worldwide from Japan to New Jersey. WIMA's statistics show 2,191,791,000 units (refillable and non-) sold in the United States last year, for a total of $363,759,000.
"There are other modes but in terms of volume this is a ball point market," says Gene Rohlman, spokesman for the Parker Pen Co., headquartered in Janesville, Wisc. Parker -- which, among other products, now markets a gold ball point listed at $1,750 -- purchased Biro's patents in 1954.
"The most popular mode of writing is the ball point pen. Period," Rohlman says.