The Razor’s Edge

by Jonah Goldberg

My razor post is eliciting enormous amounts of e-mail. Who knew razors belong in the same category as volcano-lancing, dogs, Abraham Lincoln, zombies, and prayer as topics that spark enormous e-mail traffic? Alas, I cannot continue this thread for a bit because, well, razor-blogging has its limits and I’ve got to write the GFile, among other things. But, for those who don’t mind a little lot of profanity, here’s a relevant statement from the head of Gillette, as recounted by the Onion. Meanwhile, this e-mail was interesting (admittedly to people who find this topic interesting):

Good Day Sir,

In late 1996 I went to a Chemistry department seminar at the University of Missouri – Kansas City featuring none other than one of the lead Mach-3 research and development scientists for Gillette. He was very eager to justifiably boast about their technological achievements, but let us know early on that he was constrained by the “suits” in revealing certain “trade secrets”.

Well, the audience thought that it was going to be a very dull seminar — those trade secrets would certainly be the technical details about which we were curious. See, razor blades have a long history and progress in their development had stagnated because of an inherent limitation of the metal material. You want to make the edge of the blade as thin as possible to yield maximum sharpness, but the thinner you make it, it starts to become foil-like, flimsy, and quickly degradable. The holy-grail quest for decades has always been a way to make the razor-blade edge both thin and durably hard. Alloy-science and manufacturing methods could only take you so far, and had basically run their course.

Gillette had seemed to solve the puzzle with the Mach-3, and we all wanted to know how. Most of us had tried the new razor (I got one free in the mail on my 18th birthday — good marketing Gillette!) and we all agreed it delivered a clearly better shave. As an aside — 14 years later – everyone I’ve ever talked to about it agrees with Mickey Kaus — they’re *definitely* not like they used to be. But getting back on track, after his introductory disclaimer, we were expecting to be left in the dark.

To our surprise, the scientist proceeded to explain the critical breakthrough. They had developed some way to do carbon-vapor deposition on the edge of an extremely thin and freshly-sharpened blade-edge. It would leave a layer of diamond crystals four atoms thick on the surface that would be hard, durable, and sharp. The process was expensive — hence the price of the blades — but they hoped to make it cheaper over time. We were all very impressed at this early, mass market application of “primitive but affordable nanotechnology”. The applause at the end of his slides was long-sustained.

So what was the fuss about the trade secrets? That came at question-time. Someone asked, “If the blade is so good on it’s own, why do we need three? Or if three is really better, maybe you could also have a slightly-worse double or even single-bladed version available for a third of the cost?” The lecturer rolled his eyes with resignation and gave us a, “Please don’t ask, I can say no more” look, and added “You’re lucky they didn’t make it five!” Laughs all around, of course.

Someone else asked where the blades would be manufactured, and another member of the audience interjected “China!” But the scientists said “No, we’re looking at India, it’s a facial-hair thing, there’s not such a large market in China for these.” A perceptive Chinese member of the faculty then asked (and keep in mind, India was *much poorer* even 15 years ago than today, “Indian Market?! These blades are expensive for us in America! If it’s manufacturing that makes the cost, how on earth are you going to sell them to Indians? Is there an alternative cheaper version or something?”

The scientists just gave us the look again at that. I always wondered what that was all about. Now maybe Mickey Kaus has put 2 and 2 together.

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