For more about this episode, and to hear it, visit theallusionist.org/ballpoint
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, give language the ride of its life.
This time last year, Radiotopia and PRX were holding what turned out to be the biggest ever journalism campaign in Kickstarter history, and thanks to the incredible generosity of you listeners, they raised enough money to add new shows to the collective, including this one. I could not be more grateful. To be able to make this show - and to have you people choosing to listen to it - that’s been the greatest joy of my whole career.
And soon, we’re going to be asking you to get involved again, to help us make Radiotopia stronger and better and bigger than ever. You can find out everything on the 19th October at radiotopia.fm: a month of Radiopian fun is about to commence, and throughout, the Allusionist is going to be coming out every week, and in each episode I’ll be teaming up with another Radiotopian. First up to the plate is this guy:
RM: This is The Allusionist. I’m Roman Mars.
HZ: The man without whom there would be no Radiotopia at all.
A while ago, Roman tweeted:
I would totally listen to an ongoing radio series comprised solely of the stories behind eponyms.
Firstly, I thought, what’s an eponym?
eponym, noun: A person after whom a discovery, invention, place, etc., is named or thought to be named; a name or noun formed after a person.
Secondly, I wondered it was about eponyms that got Roman so excited?
RM: An eponym, almost by definition, has some kind of story - even if it isn’t the origin story, it’s got something where it got the eponym attached to it, which is a good enough story to be retold. For that reason, I kind of love them, and it starts a good conversation. That’s what I love about eponyms.
I‘ve always liked ‘silhouette’, because I think it’s a bit of a slur. Really elaborate portrait painting was in fashion; Silhouette was the head of the French treasury, was cutting back into his diversion of austerity, right at the time outline drawings were coming back into fashion - which were clearly not as elaborate, didn’t require an artist to spend months and months of time. So that type of portrait was ‘a la Silhouette’ - stripped down, simple, didn’t require skill. I love that because it’s a bit of a slight at the same time as being descriptive.
HZ: Well if you like 'silhouette', Roman, you’re going to love 'bowdlerization', after the English editor Thomas Bowdler, who in 1818 released a version of Shakespeare’s plays that he’d reworked to make them more suitable for women and children, ie he’d taken out all the naughty bits and foul language - Lady Macbeth doesn’t even say her famous line, “Out, out damned spot” any more, but “Out, crimson spot”, as if she’s in a laundry detergent advert. His edition was actually a huge success, and brought Shakespeare to a much wider audience, but his name does now stand for cack-handed expurgation.
RM: I love them. When it comes to word origins, an eponym is the shortest bet you’re going to get a good story out of it.
HZ: And it took me this long to realise it.
RM: I know. What is your problem? I told you from the beginning just to make an eponyms show! I love them. So do a regular one. Do one every six weeks.
HZ: I’ll see how this one goes.
HZ: I'm going to start small, with some items you’re probably all familiar with. You might be holding one right now. The Bic and the Biro.
I chose these for the first eponyms attempt because I thought they are in the spirit of both Roman’s show 99% Invisible, which examines a lot of commonplace objects, and of this one, because this is a show about words, and what is stationery without words, and words without stationery?
JW: Stationery is the physical infrastructure of words.
HZ: That’s James Ward, author of Adventures In Stationery: A Journey Through Your Pencil Case. So James knows a lot about the ballpoint pen, which we might casually refer to as a Biro or a Bic.
JW: I guess what’s interesting is that, for lots of people, they’re just one thing. So people will say a Bic Biro.
HZ: Is that controversial?
JW: It’s odd in the same way that you wouldn’t say, “I’m going to have a can of Pepsi-Coke”. I suppose you might say, “I just bought a Dyson Hoover”. I guess it’s when one brand becomes the generic and the other remains specific.
HZ: how do you think 'biro' managed to become the generic?
JW: László Bíró didn’t invent the ballpoint, but he perfected it.
HZ: The invention of the ballpoint, going by a patent filed in 1888, is credited to John J. Loud, who had a great name for a product, but not a good pen. Which left room for László Bíró to swoop in and claim ballpoint victory.
Born in Budapest in 1899, László Bíró had been, variously, a medical student, a stage hypnotist, an insurance salesman, then a race car driver, a - and eventually he became a journalist, which was what he was working as in the early 1930s when he invented the pen that would make his name. Indeed, take his name.
JW: Apparently when he was in the print room, the heat of the machinery caused his fountain pen to melt and leak, so he wanted to create the technology for a pen that wouldn’t leak due to heat and pressure. He saw the way cylindrical printing presses rolled the ink onto the page, and thought, “If only you could have a miniature version of those.” But the problem is that a cylinder can only roll forwards and backwards, whereas when you’re writing, it needs to roll in all directions.
The story that is almost certainly not true but is frequently told is that he was sitting in a cafe looking out of the window, trying to make sense of how you make a cylinder roll in all directions. It had been raining outside, and there were some kids playing with marbles, and one of them rolled a marble through a puddle, and then he saw the line of water that the marble made on the pavement and suddenly realised a ball rolled in all directions.
I dunno, it seems quite obvious that a ball rolls in all directions. All ball games are based on that principle. But it took him these children playing with marbles to make the connection.
He had this weird experience - I think he was checking into a hotel and signed in using his prototype pen, and the guy next to him said, “That’s interesting, tell me about your pen.”
HZ: Not the best pick-up line, but that passing pen enthusiast turned out to be the former president of Argentina, visiting Europe to promote trade links. So László Bíró moved to Argentina to grow his pen empire. Penpire?
JW: The story is, they had these prototype pens and would take them to meetings to try to get investors. László would be doing all the talking, and his colleague would be under the table - some of the pens worked, some didn’t, so he’d be scribbling on a piece of paper, and if a pen worked, he’d go, “Oh, here’s a sample!” Whereas if it didn’t start working, he’d give László a signal who’d say they didn’t have any prototypes with them.
HZ: So Biros were a bit rubbish?
JW: They had lots of problems they had to resolve. They had to find an ink that was viscous enough not to leak out, but not so thick it would clog or jam; they had to find a way that you could keep it in a jacket pocket and the heat and pressure wouldn’t cause it to leak.
JW: So Bíró teams up with Henry Martin, who was involved with the UK aeronautics industry. To make the pens, you need very very fine ballbearings, and the aviation industry makes the best ballbearings. This is during the Second World War. They started manufacturing these ballpoint pens and gave them to the RAF, because if you’re flying really high and need to write down coordinates or whatever, you want a pen that’s not going to leak because of the air pressure. And these pens worked.
HZ: Hooray! But it wasn’t smooth-rolling thenceforth. There was a lot of competition, albeit mostly rubbish. In the United States, a man called Milton Reynolds wanted to be the first to launch a ballpoint in that country.
JW: The Reynolds International, described as an atomic age superpen.
HZ: He didn’t actually put in much effort to make the superpen a super pen; he just wanted to be the first to market so everyone bought his pen.
JW: He was an opportunistic huckster. He rushed out this pen, which caused a sensation at the time - when it first launched in New York, there were thousands of people lining the streets.
HZ: Like Beatlemania, for pens.
JW: Or like a new iPhone. but for pens. So he launched this pen, but it was really crappy. It came with a guarantee that if it broke within two years, they’d replace it; they had to replace hundreds of thousands of these things. In the US, that created the market for the ballpoint, but it also nearly killed it off, because people had that experience with the bad pens.
HZ: But then another major ballpoint player entered the fray. A manufacturer of fountain pens who kept getting inquiries for ballpoint pen parts: Marcel Bich. Spelt B-I-C-H, but for his eponymous pen he dropped the H, so you didn’t think that the Bic Crystal was pronounced ‘bigh’ or ‘bitch’ or any other way than ‘Bic’.
JW: It was after the war that the Bichs came along. They licensed the technology from Bíró, then there were these very complicated legal battles where each company kept suing the other one claiming infringement. Miles Martin, the UK company Bíró was involved with, was suing Bich, and there were all these complications - with Richard Curtis romcom-like inevitability, Henry Martin, who ran the Miles Martin company, his son married the daughter of Marcel Bich.
HZ: Real Romeo & Juliet stuff.
JW: But you can imagine it must have been tricky when they were choosing which pen to sign the marriage certificate with.
HZ: Maybe they used a pencil.
JW: Bic grew and grew and grew.
JW: Because that particular pen, the Bic Crystal, the one everyone refers to as the Bic Biro, with its hexagonal body and its familiar cap with the hole in the end - that particular pen just works.
HZ: So it’s meritocracy in action.
JW: Something like half of all ballpoint pens sold in the world every day are Bic Crystals. So if you think of the millions of types of ballpoints - supermarket, own brand…
HZ: I’ve got this one I stole from a hotel, I’m almost ashamed to show you.
JW: The Bic Crystal just works. And there’s one in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I don’t know if it’s always on display, but it’s definitely in their collection somewhere.
HZ: You have to ask. You have to pay $20 to see something that you could buy for $0.50
JW: Yes, but it’s a different experience.
HZ: Let’s take a little etymology break. ‘Pen’ and ‘pencil’ may share a syllable, but don’t let that dupe you into thinking they have a common linguistic origin. ‘Pen’ derives from the Latin ‘penna’, which meant ‘feather’, so saying ‘quill pen’ is a tautology, good to know. Pencil, meanwhile, came from the Latin for a painter’s brush, ‘penicillus’, a diminutive of ‘pēniculus’, which meant ‘little tail’. And the Latin for ‘tail’ is also where we get the word ‘penis’.
Anyway, back to pens, and how their development influenced the development of writing itself.
JW: The ability to make marks more precisely means you’re able to make more complex marks. If you only have a bit of stick and a clay tablet, you can only produce a simple script. But if you start using a reed brush on papyrus, that offers more flexibility; then if instead of papyrus, which is quite rough, you use parchment or vellum, which is extremely smooth, you can use a quill which is flexible - so you’re able to produce beautiful illustrated or illuminated texts. With those developments, the characters that you’re able to produce are easier to distinguish, so you can have more characters and writing that’s more complex.
HZ: My school would only let us use fountains pens. We were NOT allowed to write with ballpoints. A fountain pen can produce thin strokes and thick strokes and flourishes, and thus invest handwriting with character and flair; whereas the ball produces lines of uniform thickness. So a lot of people believed the pens were detrimental to handwriting.
JW: But László’s daughter said her father would often respond to those complaints. He’d hear people say the ballpoint was ruining writing skills, and he’d smile and say, “Well, if writing comes from the heart, if we can help the hand to perform the hand to perform the task, what’s so wrong with that?” And I think there’s nothing wrong with that. Well done László Bíró.
HZ: I think it’s also interesting that Bíró and Bic's names are on products that are hugely successful, but rarely the centre of attention - and also disposable.
JW: Yeah. And also they are kind of disposable, in that you can know what a Bic or a Biro is, but you don’t need to know who Marcel is or who László is. They’ve made this disposable contribution to history, and in the same way made themselves disposable.
HZ: So if your eponymous product is successful, your involvement in it, and even your own identity, is subsumed. Which might not sit that well with the kind of people who put their names on things, because calling something after yourself seems like quite an egomaniacal choice to me.
RM: I may be wrong, but my impression is a lot of eponyms are not the person naming it after themselves, it’s more assigned by another person.
HZ: Like a mark of respect.
RM: Yeah! Yeah.
HZ: Having a disease named after you is quite a sad way to be remembered, isn’t it?
RM: I don’t know - if you were a researcher, you’ve probably got over the grossness of the disease and just enjoy the fact you were instrumental in its discovery or successful treatment. So I have a feeling I could live with a horrible disease being named after me.
HZ: But then you have people only remembering you because you’re what killed their grandma. And you feel good about that?
RM: Be remembered. Doesn’t matter what it’s for!
HZ: That’s what serial killers are banking on.
RM: And they’re right! Hahaha.
HZ: Happy birthday Roman. And thanks. Without you, this show would not exist. And it’s the best job I’ve ever had.
I imagine that most of you already listen to Roman’s show 99% Invisible, but if not, good grief - fill your ears with it RIGHT NOW.
Altogether there are thirteen magnificent shows that form Radiotopia from PRX. Visit radiotopia.fm to obtain them, and, from 19th October, go there to find out how you can get involved and support Radiotopia. Set an alarm.
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This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman. Thanks to Martin Austwick for the music and editorial help, and to Seth and Alison for letting me and Roman record in their Wendy House. James Ward’s book Adventures in Stationery is out now - in the US, it was published as The Perfection of the Paperclip: Curious Tales of Invention, Accidental Genius and Stationery Obsession, so search for that instead. This book will transform the way you think about paperclips and staplers and sticky tape.
You can find me at facebook.com/allusionistshow and twitter.com/allusionistshow, and theallusionist.org, where I’ll be back next week with another Radiotopisode.