Invention and innovation: An introduction
Invention and innovation: An introduction

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Invention and innovation: An introduction

10.4 Desire to make money

While most inventors might dream of growing rich from their inventions few invent for that reason alone. There are some exceptions though.

Take the case of the safety razor. One person, a travelling salesman named King Camp Gillette, was primarily responsible for the original invention and prototype. Unlike many lone inventors Gillette was not inventing something arising from a hobby or a field of technology with which he was already familiar. He was deliberately searching for a winner. He'd been advised by William Painter, the inventor of the disposable crown cork bottle cap, to try to invent a disposable product for which the consumer would develop a continuing need, guaranteeing a steady market for the innovation.

In 1895 while shaving with his cut-throat razor Gillette realised that the edge of the razor was the key to shaving. He had the bright idea of dividing the components into a handle and holder for a disposable blade. The blade could then be thrown away when blunt, avoiding the need for regular sharpening. However his limited practical skills could take the invention no further than the prototype stage. To make further progress Gillette obtained the help of William Nickerson, the inventor of the pushbutton elevator control mechanism. Nickerson worked on refining the razor and on improving the process of sharpening the steel blades.

Gillette's safety razor finally went on sale in 1903. With only the very edge of the blade exposed to the skin it was far safer than the old cutthroat razor. Furthermore, beards were becoming less popular so Gillette anticipated large sales. At first he was disappointed – in the first year he sold only 51 safety razors and 168 blades. In the following year though, sales took off – 90 000 razors and 12.5 million blades.

The Gillette company, based around the safety razor, went from strength to strength. It's a familiar and successful company 100 years on (Figure 35). Though still largely based around razors it has diversified slightly into so-called grooming products, toothbrushes and oral care, and into batteries. The concept of disposability still applies to many of its products. In 2002 it was the largest razor manufacturer in the world and its net sales were $8.45 billion.

Figure 35
Figure 35 Recent Gillette safety razors with disposable blades
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