Nearly everyone is familiar with the Gillette brand of shaving products, but few are familiar with the biography of its inventor – King Camp Gillette. Fewer still know about King Gillette’s curious passions, such as his dream of a utopian socialist society located near Niagara Falls. Even if you know the name King Gillette, or you recognize his face from vintage razor blade packages, here are five details of Gillette’s life that you may not know:
Gillette’s family lost everything in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871
Gillette lived in Chicago with his father, mother and four siblings in the 1870’s. Gillette was a teenager at the time and his father had a successful business selling “japanned tinware” and hardware. When the Chicago Fire destroyed 3.3 square miles of Chicago the Gillette home was undamaged. However, the family business was completely destroyed. With no business left to support his family, Gillette’s father decided to relocate the family to New York City.
King Camp Gillette decided to remain in Chicago. He was 17 and eager to chart his own course in life. He became a clerk at a hardware wholesaler and by age 21 he had become a successful “commercial traveler” – a traveling salesman.
Gillette’s family was obsessed with inventions
The late 1800’s were an unprecedented time of innovation and invention – especially in the United States. Twenty years after the American Civil War, patents experienced a tenfold increase from ~3,000 patents granted annually to 34,697 in 1865. Many people, including the Gillette family, believed that invention was the key to success and fortune.
Gillette, along with his father and brothers, secured numerous patents during this period. Many of them focused on improving barrels for the storage of liquid. King Gillette’s first patent was an improved bushing for the bunghole of a barrel, which didn’t deform as badly when faucets were pounded in with a mallet. His father and brothers patented other bung bushings, valves, faucets, and a metal barrel liner.
As with many inventions of the day, a patent did not necessarily amount to success. The Gillette family was unable to turn any of their inventions into long-term success.
If not for bottle caps, there would be no Gillette razor
In 1881 Gillette became a friend of William Painter – a prodigious inventor and owner of the Baltimore Bottle Seal Company. Painter’s company eventually invented the Crown Cork – the crimped metal caps that still seal beer bottles to this day. Gillette became a salesman for Painter’s company, where he would make his living throughout the development of Gillette’s famous safety razor.
It was a passing observation from Painter that would eventually lead Gillette to invent the safety razor. Painter pointed to the disposable nature of the Crown Cork. Knowing that Gillette was interested in inventing, Painter told to Gillette to find a product that can be used and discarded so there will always be a market for more sales. Later, while Gillette was in a hotel with a dull straight razor in desperate need of honing, the idea for a disposable blade captured his imagination.
The flat blade was the most difficult invention of all
Gillette had recruited several partners to help develop his safety razor, including William Nickerson, an MIT educated inventor. Gillette and Nickerson quickly improved on a handle design, moving from flimsy stamped metal to sturdy machined steel. While a working handle design proved relatively easy to design, the blade itself did not.
Nickerson was working with steel that was only .006″ thick. In order to create a hard and sharp blade the steel had to be heat treated – a process of heating and cooling the steel. The thin blades would warp during the heat treating process.
Nickerson tried many approaches such as sandwiching the steel between iron plates (which ultimately warped too) and including perforations to relieve some of the stress of heat treating (which was unsuccessful). The ultimate solution was sandwiching the blades between copper plates to allow rapid and consistent cooling. With a successful process in place, Nickerson would spend considerable effort to make the process less labor-intensive, but the working flat blade would become the breakthrough that would enable Gillette’s incredible success.
Gillette designed a utopian socialist society
Few people realize that the inventor of the safety razor had a passion for changing the social order in the United States. Gillette hated the word “socialism” because of its negative connotations. But throughout his life he envisioned a world where the people owned (and benefited from) all of the world’s means of production through one massive corporation.
In is 1894 book The Human Drift Gillette detailed plans for a massive Metropolis located at Niagara Falls and designed to house tens of millions of people. The Metropolis would be the only city on the continent and would house nearly all of the nation’s inhabitants. The Metropolis would have 24,000 apartment buildings, each 600 feet in diameter. The Metropolis would house 60 million people, while 10 million would be located in the fields of production. The city would scale to accommodate population growth.
In 1910 Gillette penned World Corporation and launched a plan to unify all of the world’s economies into a single corporation. He approached Theodore Roosevelt about presiding over the corporation, but Roosevelt declined. With the lack of a visible leader such as Roosevelt, and the inability to attract investors, Gillette’s plans collapsed. He was never able to achieve his dream of a utopian socialist society.
Gillette lived in an age of invention and innovation and set the foundation for one of the most successful grooming companies of all time. He was relentless in his ambition and drive to become a successful inventor and innovator.
His passion for reinventing the social order of the world matched his enthusiasm for success in business. His incredible business success in a capitalist world stands in stark contrast to his vision for a worldwide collectivist society. Despite his failures to reinvent the world’s social orders, Gillette has remained a household name over a century after his landmark invention of the safety razor.
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