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László József Bíró, circa 1978.

László József Bíró, circa 1978.

László Bíró (BEE-roh or sometimes BYE-row) invented the now-ubiquitous ballpoint pen. Previously, writers used either pens dipped in inkwells or fountain pens, with interior ink reservoirs, but either method often led to splotchy documents and stained fingers. Bíró was always a tinkerer, and in addition to his pen he held patents for a steam-powered washing machine and an automatic transmission for cars, but he was working as a reporter when he noticed that ink from inkwells smudged easily and took several minutes to dry, while ink used to print newspapers dried much quicker. He tried using press ink in his fountain pen, but it was too viscous and would not flow properly. With help from his brother, a chemist, the ink was altered, and Bíró added a tiny rolling ball in a socket at the pen’s tip. The action of rolling the ball across paper draws ink and regulates its flow, making spills and splotches a rare occurrence.