Anyone who’s ever been into a federal office, like the Post Office, has probably seen this ubiquitous American pen: The black Skilcraft retractable ballpoint stamped “U.S. Government.” It’s one of the most commonly used pens among federal employees and the military.
Did you know that it’s assembled entirely by a crew of blind workers?
Curious about the Skilcraft brand of pens, we started doing a little searching. Turns out that Skilcraft is the umbrella brand for non-profit agencies that employ blind and disabled workers to produce all sorts of products for the U.S. government.
Skilcraft pens are made by seven different agencies for the blind in locations around the country. The black ballpoint is produced by Industries of the Blind in Greensboro, North Carolina and Industries for the Blind in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Richard Oliver, manager of operations in Greensboro, was kind enough to take a few minutes to talk with us about his agency’s pens.
Industries of the Blind has been making the black retractable ballpoint for more than 40 years. The order from the government originally came with 16 pages of military specifications that the pen must meet, including a requirement to write one linear mile and be able to write in extreme hot or cold temps, according to Oliver.
He offered these bits of trivia about the pen:
- It’s popular with Navy pilots because it measures 150 nautical miles from end to end on flight maps.
- The metal tip is exactly the regulation length female service members are allowed to grow their nails.
- The pen is made to fit into any military uniform pocket without being seen.
- Some military branches train troops to use the bottom portion of the barrel as an emergency tracheotomy tube.
- Military members have said that the bottom of the barrel also is the exact length of a two-minute fuse.
Industries of the Blind turns out 2.8 million of the pens each year – they cost US$ 72 for 12 dozen – using a team of about 30 workers to assemble them from pre-ordered components. Every person who actually works on the pens is either seriously sight-impaired or is completely blind, said Oliver.
There are so many of the black ballpoints floating around that they’re likely to turn up just about anywhere. (Like the writer of that post, your Pen Vibe blogger, who’s a Yank, remembers seeing these pens as a child when his Navy machinist father would bring them home.)
But they aren’t the only writing instruments the Greensboro facility produces.
The agency has an entire range of retractable Skilcraft pens, including rubberized ballpoints and the most popular, the black gel ink Vista in .07 mm, which somewhat resembles the Pilot G2. In fact, the plastic components in Industries of the Blind pens are actually made in Japan by Kotobuki, a company that also makes parts for many of the large pen companies, according to Oliver.
All total, the agency brings in about US$ 7 million making pens for the U.S. government. And what does the non-profit do with that money? Oliver said part of it goes to operating costs, and everything that’s left at the end of the year goes into retirement accounts for the workers.
So there you are, the story behind American government ink pens.