Ladislao José Biro, who is honored in today’s Google Doodle for what would have been his 117th birthday, invented something mundane but transformative: the modern ballpoint pen.
Biro (whose first name is sometimes written as László) invented the ballpoint in 1938. The new invention was so exciting that when ballpoint pens were first sold in the US in 1945, hundreds of people lined up to buy them despite the fact that they cost more than $150 in today’s dollars.
That might be because the pens were advertised as “miraculous” — and, given that they replaced fountain pens that required frequent refills and could easily leak ink, they probably seemed that way. By 1959, a version of the miraculous pen cost one-tenth as much as it did when it debuted.
In the 78 years since it was invented, the pen has changed the way people write. Handwriting experts say that cursive writing doesn’t flow as naturally with ballpoint pens, since they require more pressure.
The invention may even have helped save Biro’s life and that of his family during World War II, as he fled persecution by the Nazis.
Biro wasn’t the first to come up with a ballpoint pen — but his was the first to really catch on
Before the invention of the ballpoint pen, most people wrote with fountain pens, which required ink cartridges to refill, had old-fashioned nibs, and could easily leak. But inventors had been trying to come up with an alternative for decades before Biro came up with the ballpoint. John Loud, an American lawyer, patented a version of the ballpoint in 1888, but while the pen could write on leather and cloth, it couldn’t write on paper.
When Biro, a Hungarian, invented his version of the ballpoint pen, he was working as a journalist, but he’d previously been a medical student and an insurance salesman. He got the idea for the ballpoint pen from newspaper printing presses, which dried much more quickly than fountain pen ink by using a rolling cylinder.
But to create the ballpoint mechanism himself — as György Moldova recounted in his 2012 book Ballpoint — Biro was inspired by something much less technologically advanced: a child playing with marbles.
A cylinder could only roll backward and forward, while a pen needs to move in all directions. … Looking out the window, [Biro] saw a group of children playing marbles in the street. It had been raining, and one boy rolled a marble through a puddle. As it rolled along the pavement, it left a line of water in its wake. With that inspiration, the ballpoint was born.
Ballpoint pens rely on a tube of ink that’s thicker and dries more quickly than the ink a fountain pen would use. Instead of a nib, there’s a small rotating metal ball. The ball is held tightly in a socket to stop air from drying out the ink. But it still rolls around, allowing it to pick up ink and transfer it to paper.
Just months after Biro, who worked with his brother, a chemist, developed his idea in 1938 and signed a contract with a business partner to produce and market it, he had to flee Hungary.
How World War II shaped the ballpoint pen and Biro’s life
Biro was Jewish. And Hungary, which was at the time allied with Nazi Germany, was becoming an increasingly hostile place for Jews. In April 1938, Hungary passed laws limiting Jews’ ability to work; later that year, a law was passed banning the exportation of intellectual property.
So Biro, who claimed to have converted to Christianity, left the country, carrying his plans with him, before the law went into effect. He and his brother traveled from Budapest to Paris, Madrid, and finally Argentina, where Biro began manufacturing the pens commercially.
The United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force was the most important customer. Fountain pens, which leaked at high altitudes and couldn’t write on a notepad held up against the wall, weren’t ideal for keeping flight logs, and so despite the fact that the early versions were expensive, the RAF ordered 30,000.
But Biro didn’t profit as much as he could have from his invention. He ended up selling the last of his shares in the company, Peter Pesic wrote in a review of Ballpoint in the Wall Street Journal, when he needed money to get his family out of Argentina. “Understandably, he had no regrets about bartering to save lives,” Pesic wrote.
Ballpoint pens changed handwriting forever
It’s common these days to hear complaints that texting, typing, or Common Core are killing off kids’ ability to write cursive. But when the ballpoint pen first became popular, it faced a flood of similar arguments. People have been complaining about the decline of handwriting since the 1960s, when ballpoint pens became popular.
Writing at the Atlantic in 2015, John Giesbrecht made the case that the ballpoint pen — and not personal computers — is responsible for the decline of formal handwriting, particularly cursive. Ink flows differently from ballpoint pens, he wrote, making it more natural to separate letters (in print) than to join them together (in cursive).
“Perhaps it’s not digital technology that hindered my handwriting, but the technology that I was holding as I put pen to paper,” Giesbrecht wrote. “Fountain pens want to connect letters. Ballpoint pens need to be convinced to write, need to be pushed into the paper rather than merely touch it.”
Ballpoint pens may also have made writing for long periods of time less comfortable. Giesbrecht quotes a handwriting expert who points out that even though the pens worked differently, children were still taught to hold them the same way they would fountain pens — even though that grip is uncomfortable when using a ballpoint, which needs to be held at a slightly different angle in order to work best. The result is that people’s hands cramp more easily, and they’re less likely to want to write by hand.
Biro was no stranger to these complaints about deteriorating handwriting skills when he was alive. But he mostly shrugged them off. The Guardian quoted his daughter, Mariana, in 2008:
The Biro was my father's greatest invention. I'm so proud that the name lives on. He used to hear people say the ballpoint was ruining writing skills. He would smile and say, "Well, writing comes from the heart. If we can help the hand to perform the task, what is so wrong with that?”
As the Los Angeles Times wrote on Biro’s death in 1985: “He leaves a legacy in every shirt pocket, and a Hungarian-born word in Spanish dictionaries — la birome,” the ballpoint pen.
On blaming typing for the decline of cursive writing, instead of the ballpoint pen: “Fountain pens *want* to connect letters. Ballpoint pens need to be convinced to write, need to be pushed into the paper rather than merely touch it.”
The “4 percent rule” is a bedrock of retirement planning. But does it apply to those who quit working before 65? The rule of thumb holds that retirees who spend only 4 percent of their investment portfolio annually, adjusted for inflation, will be able to stretch out their savings for the rest of their life. For example, a $1 million brokerage account gets you $40,000 a year to spend.
Lately, the 4 percent rule has been under assault, with experts warning that the future could bring weaker market returns, an increased life span, or both. “If you retire at 40 with a couple million dollars, you’re going to worry—about financial emergencies, taxes, inflation, market crashes, and the chance you’ll live a lot longer than you’d planned for,” says Robert Karn, an adviser with Karn Couzens & Associates in Farmington, Conn.
Evan Inglis, an actuary at Nuveen Asset Management, offers an alternative rule: Divide your age by 20—couples should use the younger partner’s age—to get the percentage that you can safely spend. For a 40-year-old, that’s 2 percent, or $20,000 a year on $1 million in savings.
How do these concepts play out in the real world? We asked three people who retired in their 30s and 40s to explain how they’ve made it pay off.
The Stay-at-Home Dad
Joe Udo retired in 2012, at 38, after spending 16 years as a computer hardware engineer at Intel and saving aggressively. He and his wife, a human resources professional, performed a two-year test run in which they supported themselves on her salary alone while meticulously tracking their spending.
Financial planners typically recommend that you save enough to replace 80 percent of your preretirement income, but Udo says his family lives comfortably on less. They spend about $50,000 a year—from his wife’s earnings, dividends from stocks, rental income, and what Udo makes from a blog where he chronicles his retirement experience. “Right now we have plenty of padding in our lifestyle,” he says. “Our income is more than our expenses.” They have about $1.4 million in a brokerage account and rental properties worth $600,000.
Udo’s wife plans to retire by 2020, if not sooner. In the meantime, the couple continue to sock away money, including $400 a month in a 529 college savings plan for their son. Udo’s plan is to keep a tight lid on spending until he reaches 55. His son will have graduated from high school by then, which will free the couple to travel more. Still, Udo says they’ll be careful not to let their annual spending rise to more than 4 percent of their portfolio. Then, at 65, Udo will start collecting Social Security, which should ease the pressure on their nest egg.
“It’s not really stressful at this point, because everything is going really well,” Udo says, alluding to the buoyant stock market. He’s “hoarding cash” on the chance he can buy stocks when prices dip, as he expects they will: “It seems like the stock market valuation is pretty high right now.”
Early retirement isn’t for everyone, Udo says. “But if you really put your mind to it, I think it’s in reach for a lot of people.” He says most people lack the discipline, though. Udo figures he and his wife can adjust, including working part time, if some unexpected expense crops up. Whatever happens, he adds, “I definitely don’t want to go back to working in a corporation.”
Before Sydney Lagier retired in 2008, at 44, she set up an elaborate spreadsheet to take her and her husband to age 100. Every quarter since, the couple, both certified public accountants, review their spending and investments. Eight years later, everything’s on track, despite the global financial crisis. “I figure if I kept my cool during the worst recession of my lifetime, I can probably weather any storm now,” says Lagier, who lives in Redwood City, Calif. She and her husband, who’s also retired, spend just under 3 percent of their portfolio each year. At that pace, she says, their money will carry them through age 102. Lagier declined to give further details on her finances.
Lagier has several safety nets in place, in case some event throws off her planning: The couple try to keep two or three years of cash on hand, enough to be able to ride out a 2008-style meltdown without selling stocks. The equity in their home—worth about 21 times their annual expenses—provides peace of mind. And if all else fails, about 40 percent of their budget is made up of entertainment, clothing, vacations, and eating out, all of which they could cut.
Lagier tried working part time for a while but didn’t enjoy it: “There was so much I wanted to be doing that I wasn’t getting time for.” Now she keeps busy taking piano lessons, exercising, and writing a book about retirement. Her husband is learning the acoustic guitar, and the pair regularly head into San Francisco to listen to live jazz.
The Road Tripper
Justin McCurry is a 36-year-old transportation engineer who hasn’t worked full time in three years. He didn’t want to have a job for 20 more years, he says. “What if I keel over at my desk at 56?” He and his wife, who quit her back-office job at Credit Suisse in February, spend about 3 percent of their $1.5 million portfolio a year.
Their lifestyle in Raleigh, N.C., is comfortable but not cushy. They eat out once a month and get takeout at other times. They’ve paid off their modest home, in a “convenient but lower-middle- to middle-class area in the city.” Their cars “were usually the oldest cars in the parking lot at work.” They don’t clip coupons but do look for sales. “I guess you could say we have inexpensive tastes and desires,” McCurry says. “But we’re not minimalist by any means.”
He has a smartphone, two high-definition TVs, and a PlayStation system. His three kids each have a tablet. “Any kind of electronics we need, we have,” he says, even if some are secondhand.
McCurry does some consulting—“work seems to chase me down,” he says—and makes $1,000 to $2,000 a month blogging about financial independence. The rest of his income comes from a portfolio that’s almost 100 percent stocks. Equities historically provide higher returns than a mix of stocks and bonds, but they’re also more volatile: The value of McCurry’s portfolio shrank $70,000 in one day in June, after Brexit led the markets to swoon. “You do have to be comfortable with, and understand, the potential for huge losses in the stock market,” he says.
McCurry, his wife, and their children recently took their annual summer road trip to Canada in the family minivan. It’s a monthlong adventure they could never indulge in if they were employed full time.
He advises flexibility, even while being disciplined about spending. “It seems like very few people follow the 4 percent rule strictly,” McCurry says. “People tend to spend more when times are good and spend less when times are bad.”
A controversial broker of security exploits is offering $1.5 million for attacks that work against fully patched iPhones and iPads, a bounty that's triple the size of its previous one.
Zerodium also doubled, to $200,000, the amount it will pay for attacks that exploit previously unknown vulnerabilities in Google's competing Android operating system, and the group raised the amount for so-called zeroday exploits in Adobe's Flash media player to $80,000 from $50,000. After buying the working exploits, the company then sells them to government entities, which use them to spy on suspected criminals, terrorists, enemies, and other targets.
Last year, Zerodium offered $1 million for iOS exploits, up to a total of $3 million. It dropped the price to $500,000 after receiving and paying for three qualifying submissions. On Thursday, Zerodium founder Chaouki Bekrar said the higher prices are a response to improvements the software makers—Apple and Google in particular—have devised that make their wares considerably harder to compromise.
We launched EC2 Reserved Instances almost eight years ago. The model that we originated in 2009 provides you with two separate benefits: capacity reservations and a significant discount on the use of specific instances in an Availability Zone. Over time, based on customer feedback, we have refined the model and made additional options available including Scheduled Reserved Instances, the ability to Modify Reserved Instances Reservations, and the ability to buy and sell Reserved Instances (RIs) on the Reserved Instance Marketplace.
Today we are enhancing the Reserved Instance model once again. Here’s what we are launching:
Regional Benefit -Many customers have told us that the discount is more important than the capacity reservation, and that they would be willing to trade it for increased flexibility. Starting today, you can choose to waive the capacity reservation associated with Standard RI, run your instance in any AZ in the Region, and have your RI discount automatically applied.
Convertible Reserved Instances -Convertible RIs give you even more flexibility and offer a significant discount (typically 45% compared to On-Demand). They allow you to change the instance family and other parameters associated with a Reserved Instance at any time. For example, you can convert C3 RIs to C4 RIs to take advantage of a newer instance type, or convert C4 RIs to M4 RIs if your application turns out to need more memory. You can also use Convertible RIs to take advantage of EC2 price reductions over time.
Let’s take a closer look…
Regional Benefit Reserved Instances (either Standard or Convertible) can now be set to automatically apply across all Availability Zones in a region. The regional benefit automatically applies your RIs to instances across all Availability Zones in a region, broadening the application of your RI discounts. When this benefit is used, capacity is not reserved since the selection of an Availability Zone is required to provide a capacity reservation. In dynamic environments where you frequently launch, use, and then terminate instances this new benefit will expand your options and reduce the amount of time you spend seeking optimal alignment between your RIs and your instances. In horizontally scaled architectures using instances launched via Auto Scaling and connected via Elastic Load Balancing, this new benefit can be of considerable value.
After you click on Purchase Reserved Instances in the AWS Management Console, clicking on Search will display RI’s that have this new benefit:
You can check Only show offerings that reserve capacity if you want to shop for RIs that apply to a single Availability Zone and also reserve capacity:
Convertible RIs Perhaps you, like many of our customers, purchase RIs to benefit from the best pricing for their workloads. However, if you don’t have a good understanding of your long-term requirements you may be able to make use of our new Convertible RI. If your needs change, you simply exchange your Convertible Reserved Instances for other ones. You can change into Convertible RIs that have a new instance type, operating system, or tenancy without resetting the term. Also, there’s no fee for making an exchange and you can do so as often as you like.
When you make the exchange, you must acquire new RIs that are of equal or greater value than those you started with; in some cases you’ll need to make a true-up payment in order to balance the books. The exchange process is based on the list value of each Convertible RI; this value is simply the sum of all payments you’ll make over the remaining term of the original RI.
You can shop for a Convertible RI by making sure that the Offering Class to Convertible before clicking on Search:
The Convertible RIs offer capacity assurance, are typically priced at a 45% discount when compared to On-Demand, and are available for all current EC2 instance types on a three year term. All three payment options (No Upfront, Partial Upfront, and All Upfront) are available.