The Biro Story

If a certain Hungarian journalist had not fled from Hitler's invading armies to South America, Woodley would not have become home to one of the largest pen factories in the United Kingdom. For the ball-pointed Biro, which on commercialisation in 1945 at once caught the imagination of the public, virtually originated as an instrument of war; its story is one of secret demonstrations to Americans and British Service chiefs, long distance plane flights, and Whitehall conferences.

The theory of a pen which uses a rotatable ball-bearing in place of a nib was not new, it was first patented as long ago as 1888 by a Weymouth, U.S.A., banker. Many other inventors subsequently took out patents for similar principles, but none succeeded in the marketing an instrument that functioned satisfactorily.

Among those who sought for a solution to the inherent difficulties of the ball pen was a Hungarian newspaperman named Lazio Biro. When the Germans occupied Western Europe in 1940 he escaped first to Paris, then to Madrid, and finally to Buenos Aires. There his continued experiments eventually bore fruit.

Biro's next stop was to find financial backing for his invention, since his own resources were rapidly dwindling. A Buenos Aires bank manager to whom he showed a prototype was unimpressed and disinclined to refer Biro to any of the bank's clients. He suggested, however that Biro should contact a Mr. Harry G. martin, and English chartered accountant who had lived in South America for a number of years.

Lazlo Biro promptly acted on this suggestion. A few nights later he dined with Harry Martin at a fashionable Buenos Aires restaurant and showed him his pen. Martin was keenly interested, and after closely questioning Biro on the instrument's qualities, thought that it should be brought to the attention of the British Air Ministry. He knew that at high altitudes the ordinary nib-type pen tended to leak and was unsuited for use by R.A.F. air crews who had to make up their logs while in flight.

The next day Harry Martin interviewed the British Air attaché in Buenos Aires and left with him three of the Biro prototypes, on the understanding that they would be sent immediately to the Air Ministry in London.

Three months elapsed without word from the air authorities. Once again Martin called on the Air Attaché, only to learn that under pressure of work the pens had lain forgotten in a drawer. Furious at this waste of time, Harry Martin recovered them and went straight to the American Air Attaché, who at once made arrangements for him to be flown to Washington to demonstrate the new non-leak pen to the chiefs of the United States Army Air Force.

While in Washington Martin met a British Embassy acquaintance from Buenos Aires. Shown the pen, the official advised him to proceed to London and place it before the British Government.

In a matter of days Martin was on his way to Prestwick in a British bomber, but in the meantime had agreed with the Americans that under license from Lazlo Biro they should manufacture the pen for use in their Air Force.

Martin arrived in London on the day the first flying-bomb fell. He took the Biro prototypes to a Mr. Richard Coit, a businessman whom he had known in South America, and he in turn showed them to friends at the Ministries of Supply and Aircraft Production, and to Mr F. G. Miles, then chairman and managing director of Miles Aircraft Ltd.

Recognising the possibilities of the instrument, Miles offered to produce it for the R.A.F., but the government officials refused, on the grounds that all the available materials and manpower at the Woodley factory were needed for aircraft manufacture.

Further Whitehall meetings followed, and at length the Ministry of Labour agreed to permit seventeen unskilled girls at Miles Aircraft works to produce the Biro pen for the Air Force. Simultaneously, the Board of Trade sanctioned limited exports to the Eastern Hemisphere.

The war over, Richard Coit formed the Miles Martin Pen Company, while Harry Martin returned to South America to set up the controlling Company of Fomento. The Reading factory employed over seven hundred workers and was believed to be the largest in the British Isles. So acute was home and overseas demand for the Biro pen, and its progeny, the pencil-like Minor and the pen-and-cigarette-lighter Balita, that the flowline was only just keeping pace. In 1949 output was approximately 550,000 instruments a week.