Fifty years between conception and innovation : The ball point pen

03rd March 2017, BUSINESS STANDARD

R. Gopalakrishnan, Author and Corporate Advisor, Email : Pen maker John Loud got a ball point pen patent in 1888, Anton Shaeffer in 1901, Michael Brown in 1911, Lorenz presented a prototype ball pen in 1924,

03rd March 2017, BUSINESS STANDARD

R. Gopalakrishnan, Author and Corporate Advisor, Email :

Pen maker John Loud got a ball point pen patent in 1888, Anton Shaeffer in 1901, Michael Brown in 1911, Lorenz presented a prototype ball pen in 1924, but none of them was successful in bringing the product to market—till Laszo Biro came along in 1938. Apparently simple innovations seem to take a lot of time from their conception to their adolescence!

Over my last few columns in BS, I have been likening an innovation to human life: a concept in the brain is like the fertilization of a fetus in the womb, after which the concept develops as a ‘life.’ In this month, I will trace the early life of the humble ball point pen. 3rd March is the birth anniversary of India’s innovative pioneer, Jamsetji Tata. The ball point pen, which took over half a century from conception to adolescence, secured funding on this date eighty years ago after a historic meeting in Budapest. Ball point pen? Innovation?

Modern folks would not even think of the ball point pen as an innovation. It seems to be an inexpensive writing instrument, not worth too much thought. Yet the ball pen had to fight for a life. Consider that just fifty years ago, Indian banks would not accept a cheque written with a ball point pen, cheques had to be written with a fountain pen! Today the ball pen’s life is threatened by digitization just as the ball pen itself had threatened the life of its predecessor, the fountain pen.

On 3rd March, 1938, Andor Goy sat at a cafe with fellow Hungarian, Laszlo Biro in Budapest. Biro’s hands were smeared with the ink left over from continuous experimentation with his new invention as he ‘pitched for funding’ Andor Goy was sceptical because of Biro’s lack of experience in the pen industry. The truth was that writing instrument innovation was led by non-pen people: Lewis Edson Waterman was a salesman, who suffered his inefficient fountain pen; so also George Safford Parker, a telegraphy instructor.

On 25th April, 1938, Biro secured his patent, a business deal to produce and market his innovation and a bulk order of 30,000 ball pens from the British Royal Air Force. Why the Air Force? Because the Second World War fighter pilots needed a writing instrument that would not leak! Perhaps this is the reason why Biro wrote in an introduction to a book about his contribution to the invention of the ball pen, “The readers of this book should remember that the contents of this book should never forget that what they hold in their hands is a hopelessly biased work. What I recount is the truth, but it is probable that the facts and persons presented are not in reality quite as I describe them.”

Laszlo Biro, a not-so-well-off Jewish writer, grew up in Hungary with multiple interests. The neurons in his brain must have been hyper-charged as he pursued many innovations relentlessly: for instance, a water fountain-pen in which water would flow past a thick ink before touching the paper, a home clothes washer, an automatic gear box for his red, twelve cylinder Bugatti, to name just a few.

Nobel prize winner and fellow Hungarian Albert von Szent Gyorgi said that “to be an inventor, a person has to see what everyone else sees but think what nobody else thinks”! And that was the characteristic of Laszo Biro. How did the concept of a ball pen get fertilized in Biro’s brain?

As a journalist Biro would often visit the printing press where the rotary printing machines evenly spread the ink over the letters, but the ink would dry up the moment the ink touched the paper. His fountain pen smudged and spread. Why could his expensive Pelikan pen not do the same as the printing press? Sitting on his balcony one day, he watched the children playing down below. Their marbles left a wet trail after emerging from the puddle. Why could not that idea work with a writing instrument? Of course, Biro thought, he would need an ink dye that would remain a fluid inside the cartridge but dry up as soon as it touched the paper. A distinguished chemistry professor pompously pointed out to him the ludicrousness of the idea by saying, “There are two kinds of dyes—those that dry quickly and those that dry slowly. How can you make a dye that makes up its own mind?”

It was out of such scepticism that Laszlo Biro synthesized a concept in his brain like a fetus in the womb, nurtured it into a prototype as maternity would help deliver a ‘baby’, and then perfected it as the prototype grew into its ‘childhood.’ He faced many obstacles, but he was as committed as a mother would be to her baby. Luckily the creative environment in Budapest was also conducive. Cafes have played a strong role in the world’s intellectual ferment1 . The Café de Flores in Paris hosted Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Pablo Picasso. London Coffee House hosted Benjamin Franklin and his friends. Budapest had a strong cafe culture, where, like a sort of Starbucks of its day, creative people could chat and doodle for hours.

It is mysterious that so a small country as Hungary has produced thirteen Nobel Prize winners since 1905. How come? The 1961 Nobel winner, Georg von Bekesy, hazards his guess, “The years of my life in Switzerland were so calm and settled that I felt no need to fight to survive…in Hungary, life was different. It was a continual struggle for just about everything, though this struggle was not one where anybody perished there is a need for such struggles and throughout history, Hungary has had her fair share….” If this is true, with the struggles of life in India, our country must develop into a hotbed of innovative thinking. Jamsetji Tata would be delighted if the Starbucks venture of his successors would promote innovation thinking in India; indeed everyone would wish that this turns out to be true.