There is one specific piece of equipment that is probably used by employees of the US Government more than any other — the common ballpoint pen. But the pen issued by the government is much different than the one you’ll find at your office supply store, and it has to be able to do a lot of incredible things.
The official black pen of the United States Government is under a brand name called Skilcraft, and each pen is emblazoned with “SKILCRAFT-U.S. GOVERNMENT” on the side. It’s manufactured in factories in North Carolina and Wisconsin by a unique set of workers. A law in 1938 mandated who could make the pen, and the workers who assemble them are blind.
During the Great Depression, the Wagner-O’Day Act was passed in 1938. It required that the government must buy products made by blind workers who had a significant disadvantage in an already crowded and unemployed workforce. The government started with the purchase of cleaning tools made by blind workers, which was later expanded to include pens. The brand name of the products came to be known as Skilcraft in 1952.
The pens Skilcraft makes for the government are unlike any other and have to meet some stringent requirements. These requirements were originally outlined in a 16-page document developed by military engineers.
There are many things the Skilcraft pen has to do. The pen must be able to write for one linear mile while under 125 grams of pressure. It has to be able to operate in temperatures up to 160 degrees and down to 40 degrees below zero. The ink from the pen can’t average more than 15 blobs or skips during 1,000 feet of writing, and the ball in the tip of the pen must be made of 94% tungsten and 6% cobalt. What’s more, the ink can’t disappear after being in water for 48 hours, and it can’t be taken off after bleach has been applied two times. And that’s not all. There are specific requirements on the length of the plastic barrel, and the refill cartridge must be American-made brass.
There are other things these pens can be reportedly used for that weren’t covered in the original requirements. It’s rumored that it can be used for an emergency tracheotomy where the plastic tube is placed in an incision in the trachea to allow breathing around an obstruction. It’s also been said that it can be used as a two-inch fuse. In addition, the length of the pen has been reported to equal 150 nautical miles on Navy aeronautical charts in case pilots needed to use it in an emergency.
Skilcraft’s sales of the pen are around $5 million each year, and each costs less than 60 cents to produce. Sixty percent of their business comes from the military, and the US Postal Service orders around 700,000 pens each year. You’ve probably even used this amazing pen without even realizing it.