When the Pen Became Mightier

It figures one of the finest inventions of our time, the ballpoint pen, did not result in its inventor retiring a wealthy man. We’ve heard this story before. But the specifics of László Biró’s fast-drying writing implement still make for great reading, at least based on Peter Pesic’s review of Ballpoint in the Wall Street Journal.

Bíró comes across as amazingly tolerant of, even oblivious to, the uncertainties and dangers that threatened his life and the fate of his invention. He was not totally naïve; he tried to safeguard his commercial interests. Nor were his successive entrepreneurial collaborators totally unscrupulous. At each stage, Bíró tried to strike the best deal he could, though his own shares dwindled steadily—and at one point he had to choose between keeping his remaining shares or selling them to help his family flee to Argentina. Understandably, he had no regrets about bartering to save lives. Yet [author György] Moldova rightly emphasizes the ultimate irony that “the inventor who conducted the thousands of experiments needed to perfect the ballpoint pen ended up without a penny of stock in the factory where they had taken place.” Inventors, beware!

If only he had a patent lawyer…

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