Politics, human intrigue flow through ballpoint pen’s ‘history’


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WHILE a ballpoint pen leaves a smooth, unbroken line as it flows across a page, the history of its invention isn’t nearly as neat.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/08/2012 (3697 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

WHILE a ballpoint pen leaves a smooth, unbroken line as it flows across a page, the history of its invention isn’t nearly as neat.

In fact, it’s a history that reads more like a spotty, broken trail scratched out with ye olde nib, inkpot and blotter.

That’s certainly the picture that György Moldova, a celebrated author in Hungary for more than 40 years, paints in Ballpoint: A Tale of Genius and Grit, Perilous Times, and the Invention that Changed the Way We Write, a fascinating work that attempts to blend the “genres” of historical writing and fiction.

Translated from Hungarian into English, Ballpoint (first published in 2001 in Hungary) cleverly traces the squiggly road of two men, “two heroes” — inventor László József Bíró and small businessman Andor Goy — who struggled, at first as partners and later as rivals, to invent, manufacture and profit from this most quotidian of writing instruments (although pencil lovers may beg to differ).

The story begins in Budapest in the 1930s and ends there in the 1990s.

Between these times, we find Bíró, who grew up in a middle-class Jewish family, fleeing a country he loved because of its anti-Semitic policies, being forced to work as a weapons developer in France, and escaping to make Argentina his home.

It’s in that South American country that he perfected the pen in 1943 by figuring out how to best deliver a specially designed dye to the ball.

Between these same times, we find Goy, who grew up poor, build a successful typewriter repair and maintenance company, invest in and contribute ideas to Bíró’s ballpoint project, and lose his company in a wave of Soviet-induced nationalization after the war.

Swirling within and around the arc of these two lives, Moldova illustrates how citizenship and nationalism can be used in conjunction with patent laws and international/national corporate capitalism to peel away from individual innovators and entrepreneurs their ownership of intellectual property.

For example, Bíró handed over a sizable percentage of his shares to his Argentine partners to free his family from fascist Hungary.

And when Goy tried in the late 1950s, supported and represented by the Hungarian state, to establish his legal rights to the production of the pen in Europe, he learned that in the real world of late capitalism, David never defeated Goliath.

As a Biropatente Company executive allegedly told him: “I think the press at the time falsified the outcome of that particular contest.”

Ballpoint is not a detailed study of the science behind the pen. Nor is it particularly interested in the socio-technological significance of the pen. This is not another cultural history, like Mark Kurlansky’s Cod and Salt.

And, not surprisingly, Moldova makes no mention of the footnote Winnipeg plays in the saga of the ballpoint pen.

The late business mogul Albert Cohen, of Gendis Corp. fame, got his start in 1952 when he bought up the rights to distribute the Paper Mate pen, one of the earliest successful ballpoint brands, from its San Francisco-based company.

But fortunes made in the wilds of the Canadian Prairies are beyond Moldova’s range. Ballpoint is more a political project. It’s more a mythologizing of a class — a middling class of merchants and intelligentsia, a kind of petite bourgeoisie — that draws nostalgically on memories of Hungary at the turn of the 20th century.

It’s more an exercise in nation building that not too subtly uses the “history” of the ballpoint pen, glued together with fictional insights and flights, to repair tears in the Hungarian social and psychic fabric.

Such manipulation of the past is never more apparent than in Moldova’s decision to conclude Ballpoint with Bíró’s return to Hungary.

He follows this with an epilogue that celebrated the 1996 visit of Bíró’s daughter to Budapest and her reaching out to make peace with the Goy family.

Clearly, this is a tale that will be of interest to Hungarians and students of Eastern Europe. But even for readers without a Magyar in this race, there’s a deliciously voyeuristic feel to this fast-paced, pseudo-historic work, as if you’re eavesdropping on a family conversation.

This combination of history and gossip makes Ballpoint a good read to ease you back into fall when, unfortunately, we’ll all be picking up our pens again very soon.


Greg Di Cresce is a Winnipeg journalist and a student of communication history.

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