The 'magic pen' of a Hungarian artist in Argentina

László Biró (Budapest, September 29, 1899 – Buenos Aires, October 24, 1985)

How a Hungarian journalist with hypnotic gifts, in addition to an automatic car clutch and an uncrackable lock, also invented the ballpoint pen and ended up in Buenos Aires through a chance encounter and the advance of Hitler.

It was there that a British businessman discovered that pen because it was ideal for use by pilots at high altitudes. This is how the ballpoint pen acquired a military significance. The weird Hungarian is today the patron saint of all Argentine inventors.

She searched in her bag, then a writing instrument appeared that surprised him. It looked like a mechanical pencil, but the writing it produced looked like it was written in ink.
– What is that thing? He snatched it from her hand. At the tapered end, he noticed a small bullet.
– That's a ballpoint pen. Is that so special?
– Those things don't exist here. Never use it again! The Germans haven't invented it yet. Have you gone crazy? What must they think when they see you with that?'
(Willem Frederik Hermans, The Dark Room of Damokles, p. 48. The Dutch-English secret agent Elly threatened to betray herself upon her arrival in the Netherlands in early July 1944 by possessing a ballpoint pen.)

The Hungarian journalist and inventor László Biró had an appointment in a Slovenian spa in early 1938 with a banker who might be willing to finance the development of his new pen. At the counter, Biró had used a prototype of his ballpoint pen.

A short, gray man noticed this and contacted him afterwards. "I'm an engineer," he said, "may I see how that pen works?" Biró gave a demonstration and explained that he was looking for a moneylender. "Come to my country, to Argentina," the man replied, "there you will find such a person." "A Hungarian is guaranteed not to get a visa for Argentina," Biró argued.

The man then gave him a business card, signed it and said that it would get him a visa at any Argentine embassy. That chance encounter in the spa town of Rogaška Slatina would change László Biró's life completely.

Biró writes in his memoirs that he noticed on the card that the man was 'president'; from some firm, he thought at the time. Later, when he was in great distress, that firm turned out to be the State of Argentina.

And the president, one General Agustín Justo, was an engineer by training. Biró grew up in Budapest, the Paris of Eastern Europe, which experienced its own roaring twenties after the First World War. His father was the type of dentist who assembles his instruments himself.

His older brother György studied chemistry, himself medicine, to follow in his father's footsteps. Until the day he was involved in a major accident, ended up in the hospital and discovered hypnotic abilities in himself.

László invented all kinds of applications of hypnosis for the medical world, such as a form of anesthesia, gave lectures about it, organized conferences, earned good money and was too busy to complete his studies.

In the years that followed, he worked as a clerk for an oil company or as a stockbroker, developed himself as a painter of surrealist works or amazed the citizens of Budapest as a racing driver during the weekend. In a bright red Bugatti, for example.

László Biró fitted perfectly into the coffee house culture of the Hungarian capital, six hundred establishments – kávéház – where writers, artists, chess players and journalists met each other every day.

Novels were written here, newspapers edited, and, as Biró recounts in his memoirs, inventions were also born here. An inspiring environment where you could ask the waiter for pen, ink and paper, and where the 'patron' lent young authors money.

Where writers could pay with a piece of their manuscript. László Biró felt at home here and found his way. In 1928 he developed a kind of fountain pen that worked with water and solid aniline that dissolved while writing. An experiment with which his father had already been busy.

In 1933 he, the surrealist painter, became editor-in-chief of a newspaper that was supposed to promote Hungarian art abroad, later of a cultural magazine. One constant ran through all hobbies: inventing.

A total lack of technical training did not stop him from wanting to improve anything and everything. For example, he worked with his brother on a lock that could not be cracked and on tiles that could withstand greater heat.

Shortly after his marriage in 1930, he invented a steam-powered washing machine for his wife; he could sell the patent dearly.

He judged that the clutch of his Bugatti was faulty and devised an automatic clutch that he developed together with a mechanic, a gypsy. General Motors showed great interest in that patent in 1933.

He installed the clutch on a 350cc motorcycle, had it sealed by the automobile club, and drove the thousand miles to Berlin to introduce it to GM.

The contract design offered him half a percent of the price of each gearbox sold and a monthly cash advance of $200 for five years. He discovered too late that GM had bought the ingenious link to keep them out of the market, instead of putting them on the market.

A silent revolution

In this way he learned a lot about patent issues and built up a network of friendly technicians. When his journalistic activities took over, his fountain pen almost naturally came into view.

His German Pelikan sometimes failed, stained or dried out. How many times did he have to borrow a fountain pen? Legend has it that one day he sat on the sidewalk in Budapest and watched children play with marbles.

The marbles rolled through a puddle and drew a wet line. That gave him the idea: such a line was ideal for writing lyrics. Could you put a marble in a pen? Like a bullet?

According to Biró in his book Una revolución silenciosa, the idea arose while he was standing in a printing house waiting for his newspaper to roll off the presses. The ink dried up immediately. What if he put that ink in a pen?

While his brother György, the chemist, was studying the quality of the ink, László went in search of the perfect, most suitable sphere. He found it in the Swiss watch industry.

In 1938, the two brothers were ready to register their first patent, simultaneously in Hungary, France and Switzerland. They had a principle, but the results were not good. They mainly lacked capital. A ballpoint pen looks very simple, but it is an ingenious thing.

And Biró also had to develop the sophisticated machines to manufacture them. Hence the appointment with a banker in the Slovenian spa and the meeting with the Argentine president, General Agustín Justo.

Biró's daughter Mariana later said that her father had already predicted in 1936 that Europe would go up in flames.

He did care about the fate of Hungary, but he knew that sooner or later, like many other compatriots, he would have to choose exile. 'I want to be a good Hungarian, but not at any price,' he told himself.

In March 1938 Ballpoint pen, patent illustration, June 10, 1943, Hitler annexed Austria. He came now very close to Budapest. The Hungarian regime came under strong Nazi influence and before 1 January 1939 decreed a series of anti-Jewish laws.

From that day on, patents were no longer allowed to leave the country. On the last day of 1938, Biró – married to a Jewish woman and owner of a stack of patents – fled to Paris with his family and his brother.

Because there was also Janos (later Juan) Meyne, a Hungarian entrepreneur friend who could help him with his biro.

When the Germans also approached Paris in early 1940, Biró decided to play the precious business card of the Argentine president and apply for a visa for Argentina. The Biró family fled to Spain together with Meyne, took a boat to Brazil and then landed in Buenos Aires.

Biró had only ten dollars left in his pocket. Meyne was able to set up a small company and the Biró brothers submitted their patent: BiroMeyne-Biro, the company was baptized. It was May 10, 1940. On June 22, France capitulated to Germany.

Justo (in power from 1932-1938) was no longer president - he died in 1943 - but he had enough influence to help the brothers on their way. László Biró was quickly naturalized as an Argentinian and was henceforth called Ladislao José.

In his autobiography he tells how he was later at a party and the all-powerful president Juan Perón (from 1945) took him by the arm and introduced him to the generals, admirals, ministers and ambassadors of the company with the words: 'Biró is my dear ambassador.

Thanks to him and his ballpoint pen, the whole world speaks of Argentina.'

While Europe was on fire, the Biró brothers were able to continue working. They improved their pen, acquired a new patent on June 10, 1943, and marketed it under the name Eterpen, later Stratopen, then Birome.

But those early copies were too expensive, the production process did not go smoothly, the capital injections dried up and at the end of 1943 Biró had to close his factory.

He told the 31 workers that he needed at least another five months to clear up all the problems and asked volunteers to work temporarily without pay. All 31 of them stayed. Four weeks later, he refloated his small ship.

Later, Biró would refer with pride to the unconditional support he received at the time. At the beginning of 1944, his workshop produced five hundred of the revolutionary ballpoint pens a day, under the watchful eye of… a Swiss watchmaker.

Secret weapon of war

His bank manager, who refused to grant him another loan, introduced him in those days to one Harry Martin, a British businessman who had worked in Buenos Aires for many years.

Martin knew that the classic fountain pens were failing at great heights and that the British Air Force was looking for new writing instruments for making navigation calculations. Fountain pens immediately emptied, pencil writing could be erased.

The day after his conversation with Biró, Martin walked three of the prototypes to the British Air Force Attaché in Buenos Aires. He was too busy, put them in a drawer and turned out to have simply forgotten them three months later, when Martin inquired.

With the support of the US attaché, Martin was allowed to present them to the highest military authorities in Washington. From there he immediately traveled to London where he arrived on the day the first V1 bomb fell, on June 13, 1944.

The Department of Labor provided 17 unskilled female workers to work in an abandoned hangar belonging to aircraft manufacturer Miles Aircraft, near Reading, Berkshire.

In the same year 1944, 30,000 ballpoint pens, destined for both the British and the American air forces, left the production line. Remarkable fact: the first bullets came from the ball bearings of crashed Spitfires.

It took no less than six weeks to grind them between two rotating steel plates until the irregularities were smaller than one hundredth of a human hair. They were the first ballpoint pens in the world that could be used at high altitudes, with low air pressure and in unheated aircraft cabins.

Biró's ballpoint pen had become a secret weapon of war.

The commercial firm Miles Martin Pen Company, which was established after the war, in the second half of 1945, was so successful that it soon employed 700 people. In 1949 production was 550,000 units per week.

It is enlightening to read the advertisements for the 'civil biros' in The Times of the years 1945-1949. The first dates from December 3, 1945, shortly before the holidays.

On June 17, 1946, a shop reports: 'We are lucky to still have them in stock.' On October 29 of that year, an advertisement says that you can write 200,000 words with a 'biro'. 'The ink only dries the moment you write', says one text, 'the pen does not leak, you can make six carbon copies in one go, left-handed people can now also write.' In 1948, a four-color version comes on the market, but: 'You are not allowed to carry them in your pocket.' On November 26, 1948 follows an advertisement for a ballpoint pen that is also a lighter.

At the beginning of 1949 someone recruits for service dealers: 'There are already 10,000 of us: “Join the chain.”'

From 1946 onwards, the Dutch-language newspapers refer to it as 'De Tooverpennen!'. "Biro writes 4 months without refilling." But immediately American privateers also appear on the coast: 'Reynolds writes 2 years without refilling.' "Sterling, the stylo for life, will write for 10 years, as on the first day." By the end of 1946, millions of ballpoint pens were already being produced in 37 countries.

Not always with legal licenses.

Do they leak? Yes, especially when they are not in use. For years, the ads show, there has been interest in pastes that can remove ballpoint pen stains from clothes.

Only with the arrival of the Paper-Mate (1949), the BIC (1950) and especially the Parker Jotter (1954) – a new generation of ballpoint pens – was the problem of leaking ink finally solved.

Despite the many counterfeit pens, the Birome company was able to sell licenses for millions of dollars all over the world, to Eversharp in the US, for example, and from 1949 also to the French fountain pen maker Marcel Bich, who would come up with his BIC Cristal shortly afterwards.

Enriched uranium

After the war and after the suppression of the Hungarian uprising at the end of 1956, Biró worked to help Hungarians cross the Atlantic.

At the same time, in the small laboratory of his home in the Belgrano district of Buenos Aires, he dauntlessly studied the chemistry of phenolic resins, worked with micromechanics or the separation of isotopes. He invented a plastic called birolit.

He worked on a perfume bottle with a roller, using the same bullet principle as his pen, or on a wrist blood pressure monitor.

He developed ideas around a magnetic train or thought about how to draw energy from waves. But it could also be a revolutionary mouthpiece for cigarette smoking. One day he forgot an experiment with a pressure cooker in the kitchen.

The boiler exploded and the kitchen flew into the air. That type of inventor was Biró. In between he also continued to paint – an old love from Budapest: 'The inner process that leads to a drawing or a painting is the same as working on a new invention.

It causes the same excitement, the same kind of challenge to achieve.' In 1969 he published his memoirs.

From 1981, when he was 82, Biró devoted himself to a simpler technology for enriching uranium at the behest of the Argentine Atomic Energy Commission. It remained his main project until the end of his life, when he fell ill.

At the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the ballpoint pen in 2008, his daughter Mariana said: 'When he died in 1985, he was a happy man. His dream had come true: a ballpoint pen for everyone.' At his death he had three hundred patents to his name.

He was well-to-do, but not very wealthy.

He had always poured fresh money into new projects. American companies had tried to lure him to the US, but he had remained loyal to Argentina. Reason enough for the capital's major newspapers to hang their flags at half-mast that November day.

In 1999, on the centenary of his birth, a Biró Foundation was created to support and encourage Argentine inventors and to award an annual award.

Forty years earlier, Mariana and her American husband had set up a 'School for the Sun' in the parental home in the posh Belgrano district, where she still lives.

All these years, all kinds of lessons in creativity have been given on Saturdays for children between six and sixteen: 'We teach children to be curious, to ask questions, to look and to think.' The school permanently has more than three hundred students.

Every year on Ladislao's birthday, September 29, Argentina celebrates National Inventor's Day: the highest honor for the inventor of such a small disposable thing. Or how the adventurous son of a Hungarian dentist finally became an Argentine hero through the vicissitudes of history.

On the other side of Buenos Aires, on the other side of the Rio de la Plata, in Montevideo, the well-known novelist and poet Mario Benedetti died in May 2009, aged 88.

In one of his last poems he gave instructions for his funeral: "Don't forget to put a biro in my coffin."

'A miracle pen for the atomic age'

As early as August 21, 1944, Time Magazine reported a 'sensationally successful new fountain pen' from Argentina called Stratopen, which worked with a ball instead of a nib. Main advantage: it did not leak at great heights. "In the past three months, the Argentines have bought the entire production of 20,000 units and last week the US military was negotiating to have the pen manufactured in the US," the magazine said. That was shortly after Harry Martin presented the pen to the US General Staff in Washington.

On the morning of October 29, 1945, thousands of people stormed into the Gimbels department store in Manhattan, New York.

Days before, Chicago businessman Milton Reynolds (1892-1976) had announced the arrival of the new pen in full-page advertisements: "A miracle pen for the atomic age." And Gimbels was the first to order 50,000 units. By the end of the week, 30,000 had been sold.

For the price of $12.50 or about the daily wage of a factory worker.

Milton Reynolds, who previously traded in cheap lighters from Mexico, had discovered the early Biró ballpoint pen in June 1945 in Buenos Aires.

He took a handful home, looked at how to circumvent the Biró patent - yes, 350 related patents had been applied for over the years, the oldest even in 1888 - and already on October 6, he went into a factory with 300 men starting; 23 days later, the 'Reynolds Rockets' were in stores.

Reynolds also advertised, arguing that this was the first pen that could write underwater. 'Interesting for mermaids', said a magazine scornfully.

Almost at the same time (in May 1945) the company Eversharp had bought a regular license from Ladislao Biró. Reynolds and Eversharp then engaged in a full-blown war that led to the downfall of both companies in the early 1950s.

Partly due to the lack of quality of the early ballpoint pens and also because a new producer appeared on the scene almost every week, in a true battle of the ball pen market. In no time at all a ballpoint pen was hardly worth anything: at the beginning of 1947 it cost 84 cents at Gimbels.

By that time, Reynolds had already returned more than 100,000 pens. They often didn't work, the ink ran all over your hands and the paper, not to mention your clothes. The ink of some pens even started to ferment so that the bullet was blown out of the pen as if it were an explosion.

A Reynolds employee said, "At the back of the store, people lined up one block to return them, and two blocks in front to buy them." Although it was no good, the pen continued to appeal to the imagination. "A Reynolds is the only pen that can make eight carbon carbon copies without having an original," one of the jokes read, and, "A pen that only writes underwater."

Reynolds bought a B26 Douglas cargo plane, packed it with his ballpoint pens, hired the well-known pilot Bill Odom, and flew around the world, handing out his ballpoint pens everywhere.

In early 1948, as a new publicity stunt, he led a spectacular expedition to Mount Amne Machin in western China to prove that it was higher than Mount Everest. He expressed the hope that the Chinese government would later name the mountain after him.

But the Chinese prevented Reynolds from taking off with his plane. Reynolds: "Shedding cartons with ballpoint pens kept them off me." The whole plan failed.

Reynolds, described by his enemies as a stop-and-go guy, threw in the towel in 1951. He closed his business and walked away with a profit of five million dollars. Five million dollars for a dream he couldn't have fulfilled.

Licensees around the world continued to operate under the Reynolds brand for decades to come. He died in Mexico City in 1976.


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