Today is the birthday (1899) of László József Bíró (or Ladislao José Biro – born László József Schweiger) an Argentine inventor, born in Hungary, who patented the first commercially successful modern ballpoint pen. The native form of his personal name was Bíró László József; it is common in many European countries (and even more so in Asia), to put the family name first.
Bíró was born to a Hungarian Jewish family in Budapest. After leaving school, he began work as a journalist in Hungary. It was while working as a journalist that he noticed that the ink used in newspaper printing dried quickly, leaving the paper dry and smudge-free. He tried using the same ink in a fountain pen but found that it would not flow into the tip, because it was too viscous.
He presented the first production of the ballpoint pen at the Budapest International Fair in 1931. Working with his brother György, a chemist, he developed a new tip consisting of a ball that was free to turn in a socket, and as it turned it would pick up ink from a cartridge and then roll to deposit it on the paper. Bíró patented the invention in Paris in 1938.
During World War II, Bíró was forced to flee the Nazis. In 1943 the brothers moved to Argentina. On 10 June they filed another patent, issued in the US as 2,390,636 Writing Instrument, and formed Biro Pens of Argentina (in Argentina the ballpoint pen is known as birome). This new design was licensed for production in the United Kingdom for supply to Royal Air Force aircrew, who found they worked much better than fountain pens at high altitude.
In 1945 Marcel Bich bought the patent from Bíró for the pen, which soon became the main product of his Bic company, which has sold more than 100 billion ballpoint pens worldwide. In November of that same year, promoter Milton Reynolds introduced a gravity-fed pen to the U.S. market. The Reynolds Pen was a sensation for a few years, until its reputation for leaking, and competition from established pen manufacturers overtook it. Bíró’s patent was based on capillary action, which caused ink to be drawn out of the pen as it was deposited on the paper. Because the Reynolds workaround depended on gravity, it did not infringe but required thinner ink and a larger barrel.
Bíró died in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1985. Argentina’s Inventors’ Day is celebrated on Bíró’s birthday, that is, today. On 29 September 2016, the 117th anniversary of his birth, Google commemorated Bíró with a Google Doodle for “his relentless, forward-thinking spirit.”
A ballpoint pen is widely referred to as a “biro” in many countries, including the UK, Ireland, Australia and Italy. Biro is a registered trademark, but in some countries it has become genericized – like Kleenex and Hoover. Biros were the spawn of Satan according to my teachers in Australia and England. I’m not entirely sure why this was the case in England, but in Australia it was because we were taught cursive copperplate which requires thin lines for up-strokes and thicker ones for down-strokes. I had cursive writing lessons for 5 years in primary school using a dip pen and inkwell. I was not even allowed to use a fountain pen. Why there was so much emphasis on correct penmanship is beyond me. Needless to say, I was useless at it and my handwriting nowadays is a scrawl that is more or less illegible to anyone other than myself. And . . . I use a biro.
Although Bíró was nominally Argentino, and he is celebrated there as a (sort of) national hero, he was Hungarian, and did his most productive work in Europe. So, a great Hungarian recipe is in order. But . . . as a sop to Argentina I’ve chosen a pancake (crepe) recipe because they are immensely popular in Buenos Aires. This one can be made to look like biro writing by using a squeeze bottle to add the chocolate sauce.
For the crepe batter (10-12 pieces):
240 gm/2 cups flour
300 ml milk
100 ml club soda water
1 tsp vanilla extract
grated zest of 1 lemon
40 gm sugar
2 tbsp vegetable oil
For the filling:
40 gm raisins
200 ml cream
4 tbsp dark rum
100 gm sugar
250 gm walnuts
grated zest of 1 orange
1 tsp powdered cinnamon
For the chocolate sauce:
100 gm dark chocolate
3 egg yolks, lightly beaten
30 gm butter
250 ml milk
80 gm sugar
30 gm cocoa powder
3 tbsp dark rum
1 tsp vanilla extract
butter (for frying)
For the pancakes:
Sift the flour into a mixing bowl. Add the milk slowly, whisking vigorously to avoid lumps, until they are well combined and smooth. Add the eggs, sugar, lemon zest, club soda, and vanilla plus a pinch of salt and continue to beat until well combined. When the batter is finished, mix in the vegetable oil.
Refrigerate the batter for at least two hours before frying.
For the filling:
Soak the raisins in lukewarm water.
Grind half of the walnuts, and chop the other half reasonably fine.
Bring the cream and sugar to a boil in a saucepan over medium-high head, then add the ground and finely chopped walnuts, rum, cinnamon, orange zest and raisins while stirring continuously. Over low heat cook for 2-3 minutes. If it’s too thick, you may add more cream. Turn off the heat and let the filling cool.
Fry the crepes in a crepe pan. I use butter to grease the pan initially, but after one or two it is no longer necessary. Get the crepe pan well heated, add the butter, swirl it around, and then add about a ladle of batter. Swirl it around until it covers the base of the pan, let the top dry, then flip and cook the other side. There is no need to cook them to a golden brown because you are going to cook them again.
When all the crepes are ready, spread them with the filling. Some people roll them up, others fold them in quarters (as in the photo). They are easier to re-fry if quartered.
For the chocolate sauce:
Melt the dark chocolate combined with the milk in a double boiler, or in a metal bowl set over a pot of simmering water. Remove from the heat and quickly combine the chocolate mixture with the egg yolks using a heavy whisk. Add the sugar, cocoa powder, butter and rum, and stir until well combined. Put back over simmering water and warm the sauce for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat, but keep warm.
Melt 60 grams of butter in a non-stick pan and fry all the filled crepes, in small batches, on both sides until they are golden brown.
Place one or two crepes on a heated plate and pour a little hot chocolate sauce on the top.