|Invented by Ladislao Biro Patented and marketed by Marcel Bich
|First produced 1950 and still going strong
The Bic Biro is a ballpoint pen approximately 145mm long and diameter of 9mm. The transparent barrel is hexagonal. It is made from polystyrene (transparent barrel), polypropylene (lid), tungsten carbide (ball) and brass/nickel silver (tip). The pen's lid has a small hole in it to prevent choking if accidentally swallowed.
It comes in a choice of 4 ink colours: blue, black, red and green. The colour of the lid and the end cap indicate the colour of the ink. The point size of the Bic Cristal is one millimetre and it will write for a distance of between two to three kilometres.
Prices vary but they can be bought for as little as 10p.
57 Bic Biros are sold every second amounting to 100 billion since 1950.
The name Biro has become the generic term for all ballpoint pens and there can hardly be a home in the UK that does not have one. Without the invention of this everyday object, that is taken for granted, we would be carrying about fountain pens and the necessary ink for refilling. Can you imagine what sort of fountain pen you would get for 10p? Leaky and unreliable? The Bic Biro is clean, reliable, long lasting and because of the transparent barrel you can see when it is running short of ink. The same cannot be said of some it's more expensive rivals.
The simple design is classless, no one would be embarassed to be seen writing with a Bic. It is the pen of the people. Kids can safely use them at school, no ink splatters on school uniform, no blobs of ink on text books.
The Bic Biro is also an object of mystery. Yes it is true, this seemingly ordinary writing implement has strange powers! It can disappear. How often have you thrown away a Biro? I'm willing to bet that you cannot recall doing it very often if at all, and you would not be alone, so if 57 are produced every second where do they all go? Do they have the power of invisibility? or the ability to travel through time? It is one of life's great mysteries.
This simple everyday object is considered by some to be a design classic. Its functionality, truth to form, and simple clean design is why I believe it should become a style icon. Someone got there before me, the Bic Cristal pen forms part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
The story of the ballpoint pen begins in 1888 when John Loud, an American leather tanner, patented a roller-ball-tip marking pen. Loud invented his pen, which had a reservoir of ink and a roller ball, in order to apply thick ink to leather hides. John Loud's pen was never produced, and neither were 350 other patented designs for ball point pens over the next 30 years. The problem was the ink, if it was too thin the pen leaked, if it was too thick the pen clogged and sometimes it did both.
In 1935 Ladislas Biro and his brother Georg (who was a chemist) set about designing a new pen. The instigator was Ladislas, who was editor of a small newspaper at that time, and was fed up with the amount of time he wasted filling his fountain pen and cleaning up ink smudges. The nib of the pen often scratched or tore the newsprint he was editing. As a newspaper man, Ladislas Biro knew how important it was to have the correct ink for the purpose, and he and his brother set about formulating better inks to use in their newly designed pens.
A chance meeting with Augustine Justo, the president of Argentina, led him to encourage them to set up a factory to produce their pens in Argentina. They did this a few years later when World War II broke out in Europe they fled to Argentina, stopping in Paris on the way to patent their pen.
After a couple of false starts and much expense, the improved pen was selling througout Argentina but the brothers ran out of money. Their salvation came in the shape of American flyers who visited Argentina during the war. The pen was perfect for pilots as it worked at high altitudes which a fountain pen did not, and it did not have to be refilled frequently. The US State Department asked several US pen manufacturers to develop a similar pen. In an attempt to corner the market, the Eberhard Faber Co paid the Biro brothers $500,000 for the rights fo manufacture the pen in the US. They later sold its rights to the Eversharp Co. The pens still had too many bugs in the design and did not go into mass production.
In 1945 a Chicago salesman Milton Reynolds visited Argentina. He bought a few of the Biro brothers pens and realising their potential set about producing them in the US, completely ignoring the Eversharp's patent rights. Reynolds struck a deal to supply Gimbels retail store in America and the Reynold's Rocket was marketed as a luxury item selling at $12.50. $100,000 worth sold on the first day. However there were still problems with the design and demand slumped and so did the price, dropping to only 19 cents. It looked as though the ballpoint pen was doomed to failure.
The collaboration between Patrick J Frawley Jr and Fran Seech, an unemployed chemist, revived the fortunes of the ballpoint. The combination of Seech's new ink formulation and Frawley's marketing genius led to their pen selling in the hundreds of millions, it was called the "Papermate".
In January 1954 Parker Pens introduced it's first ballpoint pen called "The Jotter". It had many qualities that put it above its rivals but the most important was that it worked. Parker sold 3.5 million Jotters @$2.95 to $8.75 in less than a year.
Marcel Bich, a French manufacturer of penholders and pen cases, appalled at the quality and high price of ballpoint pens, resolved to design a high-quality pen at an affordable price that would scoop the market. The ballpoint pen war had begun. In 1950 he started BIC, dropping the H in his name. He approached the Biro brothers and arranged to pay them a royalty on their patent. Bich then took two years developing his clear-barreled, smooth-writing, non-leaky, cheap ballpoint that he called the "Ballpoint Bic".
By the late 1950' BIC held 70% of the european market and by 1960 it had bought 100% of its american rival Waterman Pens and began to sell BIC ballpoint pens in the USA.
Bic still dominates the market today. Parker, Sheaffer and Waterman service the upscale markets of fountain pens and expensive ballpoints and there many rivals at the cheaper end of the market, however, BIC Biro's cannot be rivalled for their price and functionality. They are consistently reliable and my daughter will use a black Bic Medium biro out of preference shunning more expensive alternatives.
How stuff works - a description of how ballpoint pens work
BIC Art Gallery - more info on the BIC ball pictured at the top of the page