The Liberty Gazette
February 14, 2017Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: As writers and pilots, sharing our affinity for aviation is, in part, thanks to our affinity for the quill, so to speak – the ancestral writing devices of our laptops. Not only that, but pilots still use pens to fill out reports, write times on flight logs and plot lines on navigation charts. Those suspected of adding fictitious logbook entries to pad their flight experience are said to have “Bic Bomber time”.
What would you say then, if we told you that without airplanes the ballpoint pen might not exist?
Think of 1943. War-weary British Royal Air Force crews were using fountain pens to complete their log entries and draw on charts, but broken, leaking nibs, smudged ink, and sharp tips that cut into the paper were great sources of frustration. High altitude amplified the pen problems for pilots. The answer to their cries for help had been a long time work in progress and would come to their rescue soon.
The story goes that while waiting in a print shop, Hungarian journalist Laszlo Biro noticed how the tubular rollers of the printing press applied ink onto paper, and how fast it dried. We weren’t there, so we can’t verify this, but it might be true. Supposedly, he tried some of that ink in his fountain pen, but it was too thick and would not flow to the tip. He needed a more viscous ink which fortunately for him, and for us, his brother who was a chemist would formulate. The problem remained, however, of the pen’s nib damaging the paper. Clearly, a cylindrical shape is not practical for the business end of a pen, so whatever would he do?
Some say that while dining at a street-side café, seeing kids playing marbles nearby, he noticed as one rolled through a puddle of water that it left a track behind, giving him the brilliant idea for a ball point pen. Eureka!
Lazslo brought his idea to the 1931 Budapest International Fair, a brave move because the pen was not yet ready for prime time; further product development was needed.
With the Nazis too close in 1938 Laszlo fled to Argentina, and there he formed his company, Biro Pens of Argentina, and met Henry Martin, an English accountant. A partnership was formed to bring the pens to market.
The British Air Ministry was interested, but wanted to obtain a license to produce the pens themselves, however, the Labour Ministry refused to divert manpower and materials from producing war machines, so through the Ministries of Supply and Aircraft Production, Henry met Fredrick George Miles of Miles Aircraft Limited. Miles would make the pens with aircraft quality stainless steel balls produced at his factory. Ultimately, over 30,000 pens were supplied to the RAF crews.
French businessman Marcel Bich bought Laszlo Biro’s patent in 1953 and started producing the pens at his factory in Paris. On the advice of a marketing company, Marcel dropped the “h” from his company’s name. The new name would be easy to recognize and have a more universal appeal. In 1959 the newly designed Bic Crystal pen was introduced in the United States.
More than 100 billion Bic pens have been sold. I still make logbook entries with one, fitting for its ties to aviation.