Mightier than the sword – Eve Parnell on László Bíró’s ballpoint revolution

An Irishwoman’s Diary

Updated: Tue, Jun 8, 2021, 20:09

What does an invention by a Hungarian journalist adopted by pilots flying at high altitudes during the second World War have to do with contemporary Irish art?

It’s probably a long time since anyone queued in the bank, probably longer since you filled out a lodgment slip with a biro, and even longer since you could pick up a free biro sporting the institution’s logo, but check your desk or your bag and there’s bound to be a biro there.

In the early 1930s, while working as a journalist, László Bíró noticed that the ink used on the printing presses dried quickly, avoiding the problem of smudges and blots. The only pen available at the time for your everyday writing and note-taking was the fountain pen, which frequently leaked, sometimes all over your pocket or bag.

The fountain pen ink took time to dry, and even when you soaked the excess from your document with a blotter, it could still smudge. It also took time to fill the reservoir with ink.

László tried using the printing press newspaper ink in his fountain pen but the ink did not flow into the nib, as the ink was too thick.

With the help of his brother, who had an interest in chemistry, they developed a new high-viscosity ink for their new design.

Over 70 years later the biro is one of our most 'everyday' objects, cheap, plentiful and exceptionally effective

László devised a nib with a metal ball bearing that used capillary action to draw ink around and past the ball. While the “ballpoint” concept had been flagged since the 19th century, the combination of new materials and new inks led to a tool which also suited the new era of high-powered aviation.

By the time the brothers had finalised their new writing implement and filed for a British patent on June 15th, 1938, the rumblings of war had begun. Fighter planes flew around the skies at high altitudes. Navigators and pilots were required to record their journeys and make notes. The old fountain pens couldn’t keep up, they flooded and leaked, unable to cope with the reduced pressure.

László Bíró approached the British government, demonstrating his invention, and it bought the licensing rights to Bíro’s patent.

The Royal Air Force needed a new pen that would not leak the way fountain pens did. In trials László’s ballpoint pens proved more reliable, clean and convenient, writing at high altitudes with reduced pressure whereas conventional pens flooded or exploded in the same situations. The ministry of labour allocated 17 young women at the Miles Aircraft works to make the pen for the RAF, which ordered more than 30,000 biros for their navigators.

Over 70 years later the biro is one of our most “everyday” objects, cheap, plentiful and exceptionally effective. It is so much part of our daily activities that it has become ordinary. Much or the time, we hardly notice it.

But for this artist, the impeccable design and efficiency of this apparently simple tool has led to some rediscoveries of our own time and the past it came from.

Many artists’ tools and media have a history of use dating back centuries, used today in the same traditional way as the esteemed masters did

Working with a biro brings its own constraints and rules, it is unyielding and once a line is drawn, it cannot be erased. The biro is inky and lovely and nasty! Expending the cheap, mass-produced ink onto the white page, creating extensive areas of blackness which shift and fall like a velvet curtain, the paper is still not fully saturated, tiny white points like dust motes float as if in an atmosphere-charged room.

It can create images of everyday gestures and scenes, like people used to doodle while they were on the phone. There is a quality of solidity which few other media can achieve so quickly and immediately.

How many times have we grabbed a biro to scribble over an envelope with our address before shoving it into the bin? The biro might now be regarded as an everyday, almost disposable object.

Many artists’ tools and media have a history of use dating back centuries, used today in the same traditional way as the esteemed masters did. Strangely, it seems the biro has kept up with changing times. Now almost all household objects seem everyday and disposable.

For the fine artist, pushing aside the plate of sumptuous artist-grade light and fast oil paints, acrylics, chalk pastels, and enticing watercolours, even the act of using a common biro to create a masterpiece seems dangerous and fleeting.

Yet like those early pilots and navigators, we too are enduring a challenging period. Reaching for a biro has become a most natural gesture, as is using it to record our own discoveries and milestones in extraordinary times.