Why are ballpoint pens called biros in the UK?

Biros or ballpoint pens from the 1940s and 1950s
Biros or ballpoint pens from the 1940s and 1950s

The word 'biro' comes from the name of the inventor of the ballpoint pen, Lazlo Biro. In the USA he sold the rights to manufacture the pens to Eversharp. In the UK he partnered with Miles Martin to make pens under his own brand name 'Biro'.

In America they became 'ball pens' or 'ballpoint pens'. In the UK they became 'Biros'.

Didn't Reynolds make the first ball pens in the USA?

Yes. Milton Reynolds tried to secure the patent rights from Lazlo Biro in 1945. He was too late. He found that Eversharp already had the patent. So Reynolds tried to make his own pen without infringing the patent. He beat Eversharp to offer America the Reynolds Rocket. The pens were almost useless (either they did not write or they leaked). This did not stop him selling thousands of them and making a fortune. At the same time, the reputation for unreliability almost killed the ballpoint pen in America.

Do Biro make pens today?

No

Biro was swallowed up by Bic in the late 1950s. Bics sold in the UK were made by Biro-Swan, as the company was then called. The last pens bearing the name 'Biro' were sold in the 1970s. The brand has now disappeared.

Why did the Biro brand disappear?

Biro was the first ballpoint pen in the UK. Miles Martin was able to make huge profits in the short term, but he was not able to hold onto the market.

Martin's strategy was to use litigation to defend Biro's patent. After barring competitors from copying the invention, he did a deal with them to allow them to carry on making pens with Martin getting a cut.

Martin was not sure what strategy to pursue. Was a biro an upmarket product for a discerning customer or was it a cheap throwaway pen for everyone?

It tried to be all things to all men. As a result, the pens branded Biro had very little consistency of design and did not stand out from the competition.

Bic's approach was to make a cheap pen for everyone. Parker was able to take the lead for the quality end of the market. Biro was squeezed out.

Read more: From luxury to throwaway: The story of the biro

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Retrowow - vintage, retro and social history
Retrowow - vintage, retro and social history