POST WAR AUSTRALIA - BIROS
Sixty years ago, an Hungarian hypnotist resident in Buenos Aires, Laszlo Biro, filed a UK patent for a pen with a rotatable ball as its nib. Ten years later, Baron Marcel Bich peddled his throwaway version, the BIC. Its success followed thousands of incremental improvements to writing implements.
The spread of literacy underwrote the propelling pencil and steel nibs from the 1820s. In 1883, the need of businessmen to do deals on the road stimulated Lewis E. Waterman to design a fountain pen. At that time, the concept of a ballpoint pen was also first patented. Hundreds of attempts to make a workable model failed.
One difficulty was the ink, which was either too thick or too thin. In 1938, Biro had noticed that the quick-drying ink used for newspapers was thicker than writing ink. He pitted the ball to be like a metal sponge so that it picked up ink.
In 1940, Laszlo and his chemist brother, Georg, immigrated to Argentina where they began small-scale production in 1944, pricing their prototypes at £27 each. During a trip to South America, a Chicago entrepreneur and serial bankrupt, Milton Reynolds bought up samples for his technicians re-jig. On its day of release in October 1945, the “Reynolds Rocket” sold 10,000 at $12.50 each. Two millions went in three months.
From 1947, Papermate took market leadership with a retractable ballpoint. As retractables became the standard, the quality of their spring mechanisms became less certain and were known to project the cartridge up to four metres. School kids pioneered this branch of rocket science.
Sales flattened because the early ballpoints had problems. The “Rocket”, for instance, had to be held almost vertically for the ink to flow. Laundries, meanwhile, continued to benefit by removing stains. Demand took off again in the 1950s once engineers had refined the ball and chemists had improved the ink to deliver the exact quantity required, with no jerks, no smudges, no skips, no fading and no leaks.
Word of the “Miracle Fountain Pen” had reached Australia by July 1945. The invention indeed would have been miraculous had it fulfilled all the attributes then claimed for it. We are still waiting for a device which will write under water for 257 hours in both hair-line and bold strokes on glossy paper or cloth. Local production started in 1946 with brands such as Scribal.
Another marketing ploy was to stress that the ballpoint would not leak at high altitudes. In 1945, the RAF had rushed to supply bomber crews. One firm branded its version “Stratowriter”. Prime Minister Menzies, who drafted his speeches in lead pencil, took a ballpoint on his 1950 flight to London to keep a diary.
Immediately after the war, shortages of everything were so great that you could have made your fortune selling goose quills, had you been able to get the geese. Pencils remained hard to come by in Australia until 1950 because the graphite had to be paid for in scarce US dollars.
At first, the ballpoint appealed because of its convenience, not cheapness. Maintaining a fountain pen had been expensive and frustrating because of its 36 parts called for regular servicing. In addition, constant refilling required bottles of ink, or ink wells, with the inevitably of spillage. Those containers had to be kept closed to prevent dust settling in the ink and therefore clogging the nib. Competition from the ballpoint resulted in the user-friendly fountain pens of today.
Ballpoints had other attractions. In the days before photocopiers, the newcomer let you press hard enough to make six carbon copies without damaging to your nib. In addition, everyone could use the same pen without affecting the “set” of its point. By contrast, the finer the stylus on a fountain pen, the more personalized its handling had to be. Ballpoints were thus welcomed at hotel reception and on bank counters.
Early in October 1950, Federal Treasurer, Artie Fadden, used a ballpoint to set down his late-night brainstorm for breaking the inflationary spiral driven by soaring wool exports. A fountain pen would have blotted the only paper to hand in his hotel bedroom – a toilet roll.
The ballpoint was a harbinger of much wider changes. It was an early instance of micro-technology, followed by transistors. It also heralded a revolution in merchandising, away from expert counter-staff to self-service at any retail outlet
The quality houses fought back, promoting models for ladies as costume jewellery. The stationery trade took time to break from the mindset of the fountain pen. Prices for ballpoints were kept high because of their casings. The more expensive ones were silver-plated in Bond street, or came with a 22-carat gold cap. A De Luxe Biro in 1949 went for £6.10s, equal to the minimum wage. Purchasers of gold-nibbed fountain pens, however, would soon expect a £10-look for thirty shillings.
Nor had the makers of ballpoints adjusted their sales effort to the dynamics of affluence which offered large profits but from low margins, as at chain stores. For instance, in 1949, the cheap model marketed as the “Minor” and retailing at six shillings, was only one of the Biro lines. By 1956, the firm had encased a ballpoint to look like a fountain pen, but still sold for only six shillings and threepence, with a refill at three shillings and eleven-pence.
In dispensing with the refill, BIC inculcated the disposable mentality that permeated beyond its other cheap consumer items onto durables, and even into human relationships. BIC now sells 15m. ballpoints, 4m. lighters and 9.5m. razors every day. (The profits backed “France” as the entrant in the America Cup throughout the 1970s.)
In 1959, 16 million ballpoints sold here. By 1963, the total hit 40 million, or three for every Australian. Nine out of ten biros then retailed at less than two shillings. Meanwhile, sales of fountain pens had continued their decline, from 2.1 million to 1.8m. Their average price also fell, from 17 to 13 shillings. Hoping to convince the public that they needed both, dealers promoted boxed sets with a retractable ballpoint, a propelling pencil and a fountain pen.
Most fountain pens were bought as gifts or for post-primary students. In the 1940s, infants were still learning to form their letters by scratching on slates. Ballpoints were long banned from classrooms as a cause of sloppy writing. One’s writing implement and “hand” were more than status symbols. Job applicants were invited to reply in their own hand as a sign of character. A fine hand was also a mark of good manners, because illegible writing was inconsiderate of others.
In March 1947, the Commonwealth Jeweller and Watchmaker knew that the end of civilization was nigh when the incoming Governor-General, Laborite Bill McKell, signed his oath of office with a fountain pen instead of the traditional plumed quill. At least he did not use a ballpoint which that journal associated with the “character-less and crazy age in which we are living”.