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REVIEW: Ballpoint: A Tale of Genius and Grit, Perilous Times, and the Invention That Changed the Way We Write

Book by György Moldova


 

REVIEW: BallpointIn terms of history-making inventions, the ballpoint pen is no electric light bulb, but its story is far wilder. László Bíró, born in 1899, was a hack journalist of inventive bent, who grew annoyed at the way fountain pens tended to splotch or go dry when most needed. He also had considerable powers of persistence and, as a Jew, an urgent need to get out of his native Hungary while he still could. (Throughout the interwar period, Hungary, which ended up as an ally of Nazi Germany, was becoming steadily more anti-Semitic.)

Considering his dire personal circumstances, Bíró can be forgiven a certain moral elasticity when it came to making promises. He was in endless need of money, both to solve the intractable problem of crafting a free-flowing ink and to extract his family from Hungary. He himself fled Budapest in late 1938, carrying a briefcase with ballpoint blueprints, only a week before a new law was to come into effect banning the export of “Hungarian intellectual property.” After a nerve-wracking train trip across the Third Reich, protected, Bíró hoped, by his pro forma conversion to Lutheranism—a choice, according to Moldova, that the inventor considered “slightly less traitorous than becoming Catholic”—he arrived in the supposed safety of Paris.

There he was exploited, under threat of being sent back to Hungary, by a French intelligence officer. Bíró made a last-ditch appeal to some Hungarian émigrés in Argentina, who got him out of France as it was falling to the Germans. But once in Buenos Aires it was the same old story. His sponsors demanded an ever-greater portion of the potential profits, mainly by holding out the hope, eventually realized, that they would finance the escape of his wife and daughter. (Bíró kept signing away his shares, without mentioning previous contracts with earlier investors.) By the time the technical puzzles were cracked, Bíró was world-famous—his name is the generic term for a ballpoint in many countries—and completely cut out of the enormous profits generated.

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