The basic ballpoint pen stamped with "U.S. Government" is a work day staple for millions of military personnel and federal employees. The pen consists of seven different parts and meets 16 pages of military specifications, including that it be able to write for a mile with no fading or smudging and withstand extreme heat and cold.
For more than 40 years, standard black pens have cluttered the desksof thousands of federal employees, hung on a chain at post offices across the country and slipped into the pockets of countless military personnel. Yet few have realized that this government-issue pen has a history to rival that of any monument. Blindworkers assemble the pens in factories in Wisconsin and North Carolina under the brand name Skilcraft as part of a 72-year-old legislative mandate. The original 16-page specifications for the pen are still in force: It must be able to write continuously for a mile and in temperatures up to 160 degrees and down to 40 degrees below zero. It has been used in war zones and gas stations, and was designed to fit undetected into U.S. military uniforms. Accord ing to company lore, the pen canstand in for a two-inch fuse and comes in handy during emergency tracheotomies.
The unassuming pen stamped with the words "SKILCRAFT U.S. GOVERNMENT"in white letters has endured despite quantum leaps in communications technology that have rendered lesser tools obsolete. Taking over from the fountain pen, it has withstood the adventof the rubberized "comfort grip" and the freely flowing gel ink, not to mention computers, instant messages and smartphones. The U.S. Postal Service alone orders 700,000 a year. Annual production at the Greensboro, N.C., plant has dropped during the past two decades from 21 million pens to about 4 million, but it remains a bestseller among Skilcraft's office supplies.
The National Industries for the Blind is trying to keep it that way by reminding federal agencies that it is the official ballpoint pen supplier to the federal government, even if agencies sometimes buy from other suppliers.
the pen is more performance than pageantry. The original design, brass ink tube, plastic barrel, not shorter than 4 5/8 inches, ball of 94 percent tungsten carbide and 6 percent cobalt, has changed little over the decades. It costs less than 60 cents. The pen's roots date to the Depression. The 1938 Wagner-O'Day Act required the federal government to buy certain products made by the blind, there by creating jobs for a then-marginalized population. First came mops and brooms, but the program eventually expanded to include a full line of cleaning and office supplies under the brand nameSkilcraft. The pens account for about $5 million in sales each year. About 60 percent of business is from the military, but the Agriculture, Commerce and Justice departments are all reliable customers, according to NIB. The pens are primarily issued through government agencies, though civilians can buy them by request through some retailstores.
The pens have spawned their own folklore. The length of the pen is said to be equivalent to 150 nautical miles on Navy maps, helping pilots navigate in a pinch. The metal tip has reportedly been cited as the maximum length for a woman's fingernails in the military.
Ylan Q. Mui
The Washington Post
Sunday, April 18, 2010