Ballpoint–The Tale of a Tool


Like many readers, writers, and scholars, I am an unashamed office supply junkie. I trail through my local Office Depot with the same delight I accord to grocery shopping* and only slightly less fascination than I feel in my local independent bookstore. (Go Seminary Co-op!) I like my pens to have a fine-point and my notebooks to be college-ruled. I’ve never met a specialized pad of paper that didn’t catch my imagination and I hoard my stash of hard-to-find summary paper.

I always knew that ballpoint pens were a relatively modern invention, but I never knew how we made the leap from fountain pen to ballpoint.** I found the answer in György Moldova’s Ballpoint: A Tale of Genius and Grit, Perilous Times, and the Invention that Changed the Way We Write.

Although his work is little known in English, Moldova has been Hungary’s best-selling author for more than forty years. In Ballpoint, Moldova tells the story of two other notable Hungarians largely unknown in the west: Lázló Biró and Ander Goy, the inventors of the ballpoint pen.

The story of the pen’s development is interesting in itself, beginning with Biró life as a Jewish journalist in interwar Budapest, frustrated by a leaking fountain pen. Biró’s technical difficulties and triumphs are told in a clear, non-technical manner. His search for financial partners is an object lesson in understanding legal documents before you sign them.

But what really makes the book is Moldova’s use of Biro and Goy’s story as a lens through which to view the troubled history of Hungary in the mid-twentieth century. Biró escaped from fascism by fleeing first to Paris and then to Buenos Aires. Once in Buenos Aires, he traded increasingly large percentages of the rights to his as-yet-undeveloped pen for help in getting his family safely out of Hitler’s Europe. His erstwhile partner and fellow inventor, Goy, remained in Hungary. He prospered under fascist rule, but lost everything when the new communist government nationalized his company. By the end, both partners had lost their rights to the pen as a result of financial deceptions and legal chicanery.

It makes me wonder if there’s a heroic story behind the invention of, say, the stapler.

*That is not sarcasm. I love grocery stores–ethnic, mainstream, or neighborhood bodega. Just ask My Own True Love, who patiently accompanies me to grocery stores, farmers’ markets, spice shops, and cheese emporia wherever we happen to be.

**I had a brief and inky flirtation with dime store fountain pens when I was ten or so. As far as I’m concerned, the romance of the ink bottle is dead.

The guts of this review appeared many moons ago in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


  1. Mary Montgomery on May 9, 2015 at 10:47 pm

    Isn’t a ballpoint called a “biro” in Europe?
    I second your love of office supply stores, and to them I add hardware stores and lumber yards. They bring back memories of my dad, with whom I used to visit them in the 1950s.

    • pamela on May 10, 2015 at 12:55 am

      Yes, and yes!

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