Professor Hanington's Speaking of Science: The cutting edge of electric razors
Professor Hanington’s Speaking of Science

Professor Hanington's Speaking of Science: The cutting edge of electric razors

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Several weeks ago you may recall the story about King Gillette, the first to make a disposable steel razor blade for the everyday job of shaving. His slogan of: “Give ‘em the razor; sell ‘em the blades” made him a multi-millionaire because he saw an opportunity to cash in on a simple product that everyone uses.

Today, however, almost all barbers use some sort of electric clipper in their job. It would not be a haircut without hearing the familiar buzz of the cutter running alongside your ears. Let’s take a look at the history of electric hair trimmers, especially those used just for shaving.

The original patent for a razor powered by electricity was taken out in 1898 by John O’Rouke of New York City, who used a pivoting blade set into reciprocating motion by a pair of electromagnets located in the handle. It was designed to operate from battery power and could be something you would use on a camping trip when plugged into a car’s cigarette lighter. Unfortunately, that would have to wait another 20 years until cars came equipped with electric starters and battery systems.

It actually took more than two decades for someone to come up with the idea of using house electricity to power a handheld shaving instrument. In 1928, Jacob Schick, already an inventor of pencil sharpeners and an easy-to-load mechanical razor, began producing an electric device with a shaving head connected to a small motor by a flexible shaft.

To use this contraption you had to balance the motor section on the edge of the sink, hoping it wouldn’t fall in while you plugged into the above ceiling light fixture. Most homes at this time were just starting to get electricity and did not have many wall outlets and certainly there were none in the bathroom. As the electric motor spun the cutter blades moved back and forth in a simple repeating motion, allowing one to shave without the use of lather.

Schick incorporated the first electric razor company in 1930 under the name of Schick Dry Shaver Inc. Unfortunately, as in many initial attempts, this one wasn’t a success. Many people complained that the design was clunky and often needed both hands to operate. Besides, the risk of electrocution in this invention was a tad bit too high having an electrical motor perched on a sink probably half filled with water.

It is sometimes said that “necessity” is the mother of invention and as far as Schick was concerned this was a true statement. In his younger years Schick, while serving in the Philippines as a second lieutenant, contracted severe dysentery from the humid climate. This setback almost cost him his life and required a year-long stay in the hospital to recuperate.

When Schick was declared fit to return to service they assigned him to the cold climate of Fort Gibbon, Alaska, in order to reduce the risk of another bout of the disease. During his five years there while building telegraph lines along the Yukon River, he somehow managed to injure his arm in the process.

Because Schick had a bad arm and needed to shave with one hand, he realized the impracticality of his separate motor system. With an inspiration he tossed away the old design and, by relocating the motor to the handle, he realized an instant hit. The new Schick model S sold for $25 each, (about $450 in today’s money) and was marketed extensively in the mid 1930s, eventually selling over 1.5 million units in those Depression years.

In 1935, after transferring much of his wealth to holding companies in the Bahamas, and being pursued for tax evasion, Schick migrated to Canada and became a citizen there. He died of pneumonia caused by complications from a kidney operation in 1937 at the modest age of 60.

After that, other companies began producing electric shavers. In the year Schick died Remington came to the forefront with their Close Shaver that included a micro-screen foil over the blades. Customers said it allowed for a bit more comfort and began the race for many improvements to come. In 1939, The Philips Company of Amsterdam scored a big win with floating rotary blades. During the war years of the 1940s, the marketplace for electric razors also became a battleground forcing customers to decide between the shavers with parallel blades or those with circular whirling cutters.

In wasn’t until the 1960s that electric razors with rechargeable batteries came onto the market. Equipped with new nickel cadmium cells, the products were often finicky due to memory effects associated with that voltaic system and the average life of a battery operated razor was just a few years. Modern shavers today use lithium-ion batteries, the kind used in many cellphones, and can give over 10 years of service. Many razors now have detachable AC cords or a recharging base. Some shavers even have built-in chargers and are designed to plug directly into a wall outlet with pop-up plugs.

Some may recognize the Schick ad originally placed in the October 1953 issue of Saturday Evening Post as the basis for the demonic front cover of Frank Zappa’s record album “Weasels Ripped My Flesh.”

Gary Hanington is Professor Emeritus of physical science at Great Basin College and chief scientist at AHV. He can be reached at: garyh@ahv.com or gary.hanington@gbcnv.edu.

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