Fifty-seven Bic Biros are sold every second (and then "borrowed" by passing colleagues) - not bad for a 60-year-old product. But did the pens really make that much of a difference? It was a familiar frustration that led to the invention of the modern ball-point pen - leaky ink. In 1938, Hungarian newspaper journalist Laszlo Biro noticed the ink used on the printing presses dried quickly and so tried using it in a fountain pen to avoid the problem of leaks, blots and smudges. But the ink was too thick to flow into the nib. So Biro, with the help of his brother, a chemist, devised a pen tipped with a metal ball bearing that used capillary action to draw ink through the rotating ball.
They brought their invention with them when they fled to the West during a crackdown on Jews later that year. A British firm took over the patent to produce pens for the RAF, and the first Biros went on sale in the UK 60 years ago this week. Barring tweaks and improvements, the pen is still recognisable as the ball-point Biro devised to make writing easier, and it regularly features in top 100 design lists, says Libby Sellers, the curator of the Design Museum.
Somewhere in the cosmos, he said, along with all the planets inhabited by humanoids, reptiloids, fishoids, walking treeoids and superintelligent shades of the colour blue, there was also a planet entirely given over to biro life forms. And it was to this planet that unattended biros would make their way, slipping away quietly through wormholes in space to a world where they knew they could enjoy a uniquely biroid lifestyle, responding to highly biro-oriented stimuli, and generally leading the biro equivalent of the good life.
And as theories go this was all very fine and pleasant until Veet Voojagig suddenly claimed to have found this planet, and to have worked there for a while driving a limousine for a family of cheap green retractables, whereupon he was taken away, locked up, wrote a book, and was finally sent into tax exile, which is the usual fate reserved for those who are determined to make a fool of themselves in public.
Douglas Adams in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"
It was a big thing in school to have decent enough handwriting to warrant using a fountain pen instead of a biro, usually the clear-cased blue or black ones. I tend to use an acid-free gel pen these days, especially in my paper diary.