Everyday Icon #3 The BIC Biro

Another look at the often overlooked

It often takes just one eureka moment to come up with a killer idea but months, or in some cases years, of fine tuning to turn it into a certified global success. So it was with the BIC _Cristal Biro, _more commonly known as the BIC Biro. 

In 1938 Hungarian László Bíró invented the very first ballpoint pen. Bíró, a journalist by trade, needed something that wrote quickly and effortlessly. The newspaper printing ink he’d been messing around with was a little too thick to flow through a conventional nib so he came up with the idea of a ball that could pick up the ink from an attached cartridge and plonk it onto the paper as it went round. So far so good. Then World War II intervened and he was forced to hightail it to Argentina. 

Seven years later a French Baron, Marcel Bich, purchased a factory on the outskirts of Paris to manufacture parts for fountain pens and draughtsman’s pencils. His previous attempt at selling perfume at petrol stations hadn’t quite been the success he’d imagined. Nevertheless, he scraped enough money together to acquire the rights to Bíró's invention and introduced his own version in 1950. 

Marcel Bich (left) and László Bíró (right)

Marcel Bich (left) and László Bíró (right)

Bich invested in Swiss technology capable of cutting and shaping the-by-now tungsten tip into a one-millimeter sphere that allowed the ink to flow more freely. 

The significant thing the businessman brought to the party was his grasp of market dynamics specifically the idea of marrying high volume with low cost and disposability - understood today by companies as diverse as Primark and IKEA but at the time a relatively new concept. Bich immediately and drastically dropped the price. On its initial launch Bíró's invention was all but crippled by its cost – the average weekly wage of a secretary.

But the masterstroke came in 1953 when Pierre Guichenné, the big advertising guru of the day, persuaded Bich to shorten the family name to Bic a catchy, globally adaptable trade name for the pen and one which fit in with the emerging product-branding trends of a post-war planet. It worked. Fourteen mllion of them are sold every single day.

The design couldn’t be simpler. Its hexagonal shaped barrel was taken from the traditional wooden pencil, giving three grip points and effectively stopping it from rolling off all but the wobbliest desk. The pen's transparent polystyrene barrel meanwhile lets you know when you need to shell out another 14 UK pence, 18 US cents or 22.5 Albanian Lek for a new one. 

A tiny hole drilled in the barrel's body keeps the air pressure inside and outside the pen equal in order to ease flow. An extra hole in both cap and tube exists to stop the kind of people who chew on pens from choking on them.  On this final note it’s worth remembering that should you ever need it the BIC Cristal is the recommended tool of choice to perform an emergency tracheotomy (technically known as a cricothyrotomy) on anyone choking to death. Though we can’t vouch for it writing the advertised 2kms afterwards.


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