Face: the challenge - the razor revolution

Materials World magazine
6 Nov 2014

Giancarlo Capaccio discusses the 110-year-old revolution in shaving.

In 1904, King C Gillette launched his revolutionary razor and blade. The system relied on breakthroughs in steel technology as well as on innovative product design. Moreover, it laid the foundations for a novel business concept – the throwaway model. In US patent 775.134, issued 110 years ago, Gillette claimed a thin, flexible double-edged blade obtained by stamping sheet steel of uniform thickness. Most importantly, the blade could be produced so cheaply that it was disposable. The razor, on the other hand, was designed to fulfil several important functions. It supported the blade and gave rigidity to the cutting edge, it had a blade guard and fine adjustments of blade angle were possible, and it provided a simple and safe procedure to change the blade.

Only a few years earlier, the experts of the time had told Gillette his idea would fail. The unanimous view was that production of a hard, thin and inexpensive sheet steel was impossible. In early 1900, Gillette met William Emery Nickerson, an MIT graduate, who agreed to help by addressing the steel challenge. With an optimistic outlook and great faith in Nickerson’s work, the Gillette Razor Company was founded in September 1901 – with no product to sell.

By 1903, however, Nickerson had developed the design and machinery to produce the razor blades while Gillette secured the necessary financial backing. The 1904 patent endorsed Gillette’s foresight and determination, and Nickerson’s technical effort. That year, the company sold 95,000 razors and 124,000 blades. In 1915, razor sales reached 450,000 units and blade sales exceeded 70m.

Gillette’s revolutionary approach was to change the shaving scenario, making the basic cutting tool affordable and the practice of regular shaving easy and safe for everybody.

Maintaining a clean shave poses a formidable technical challenge, not only because of the sheer number of facial hairs – around 45,000 on a typical face – but most importantly because they grow continuously, with an average growth rate of around 0.4 millimetres per day.

Hair is made of keratin, a material somewhat similar to silk. The ultimate tensile strength of human hair is 380MPa – twice the strength of copper and one eighth the strength of diamond.

Therefore, the task of the blade is to cut through hundreds of thousands of threads of fibrous keratin that are as strong as metal.

The straight blade

Shaving tools evolved over time, reflecting ever advancing skills in dealing with different materials – from clamshells, to obsidian blades, to iron and copper leaf-shaped razors. The key feature in all cases was the presence of a sharp, curved edge. Over centuries however, the design developed towards a more linear geometry, in the straight blade. A revolution in razor design and performance took place in the 18th Century, fuelled by major advances in metal technology.

In 1740, in Sheffield, Benjamin Huntsman developed a process to produce a hard steel grade for use as blade material. The new steel grade was to become known as Sheffield Silver Steel, because of its deep gloss finish. Interestingly, Huntsman’s process was first adopted in France. English razor manufacturers followed later in the wake of its success across the Channel.

The golden era of the straight, or cut-throat, razor had started. Sheffield in England and Solingen in Germany were the two established centres for the manufacture of high-quality razors.

Making the razor safer

Straight razors are effective shaving tools, but they have three drawbacks – they are expensive (as a lot of metal is removed and wasted during manufacture), the sharp edge requires meticulous maintenance and, most critically, they are inherently dangerous devices.

The concept of a safety razor was pioneered by the Frenchman Jean-Jacques Perret. In his 1770 book about shaving, The Art of Learning to Shave Oneself, he presented the idea that a safer razor could be devised using blade guards that prevented serious cuts.

In 1847, William Henson, a British aviation engineer and inventor from Nottingham, reconfigured the handle of the razor, moving it from the traditional straight razor format to a T-shaped format. For ease of use, this was to become the general standard for personal razors from then on.

In 1880, the Kampfe brothers were granted the first US patent for their safety razor, which used a protective wire guard and a T-shaped handle. Kampfe’s razor was a major advance in product design, incorporating both Perret’s safety features and Henson’s ergonomics. However, the actual cutting element had not changed – it was still the traditional forged steel blade that was expensive, delicate and that required frequent sharpening.

It was to take another 24 years for Gillette to emerge with his revolutionary product design and business concept that set the standard for the following century.

Advances in the cutting edge and the disposable razor

Since Gillette’s patent in 1904, product development continued at steady pace, fuelled by the competition between key players such as Gillette, Wilkinson Sword and, particularly in the USA, Schick.

A former US Army colonel, Jacob Schick, invented the injector razor in the early 1920s. The system pioneered the use of single-edge blades that were replaced by means of a cartridge, avoiding any finger contact with the blade.

From 1960 onward, the market witnessed more radical departures from the original concept. There were advances in metal technology and the introduction of plastic coatings to the cutting edge. The classic double-edge blade gave way to a new generation of narrow single-edge blades. The single blade was gradually replaced by an assembly of two, then three and up to five blades. Razor heads acquired new designs, with lubricating strips, rubber microfins and spring-loaded supports for the blades. And all this was disposable.

For around 70 years, the guiding concept of the business had been Gillette’s groundbreaking idea
of a disposable blade. By the mid-1970s the whole razor became disposable. The revolutionary approach was pioneered in Europe by French company BIC in 1975, with a single-blade plastic razor. The following year, Gillette’s Good News, the first twin-blade disposable razor, made its appearance in the USA.

Another intriguing development marked the beginning of the 21st Century for the two market leaders. Both Gillette Fusion Power and Wilkinson Quattro Power combined the conventional wet shaving system with gentle vibrations generated by a battery-operated motor – claimed to result in a smoother gliding action.

A market of extraordinary size

Blades have become smaller, the cutting edges last much longer, whole razors have become disposable and the size of the market has grown enormously. In the USA, as in Western Europe, about 70% of men prefer wet shaving, with the remaining 30% using electric shavers. And the total number of men who shave using a blade worldwide is a staggering 1.3bln. The race for a closer shave is far from over.