Invisible Ink

The pens read “SKILCRAFT-U.S. GOVERNMENT.” And if you have worked for an American government institution, you know that they are everywhere. At roughly 50 cents each (if you qualify for government pricing), the pens are the only ones you will see, officially speaking, at most government institutions.

Which makes you different than the people manufacturing the pens themselves. Skilcraft pens are manufactured by blind workers.

In 1938, the United States was still in the midst of the Great Depression. Given that the economy was still incredibly soft, and that blind workers were already at a competitive disadvantage, the government stepped in. Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law the Wagner-O’Day Act, which aimed at providing upward economic mobility for the blind by requiring that when the federal government purchased specific goods, those goods were manufactured by blind Americans. The law, codified at 41 U.S.C. 46, soon included pens.

The Skilcraft brand came to be a decade or so later, in 1952. Today, the company employs over 5,000 blind workers in 44 states, producing a full arsenal of office supplies, janitorial equipment, etc., with the pens being produced in factories in Wisconsin or North Carolina. As reported by the Washington Post, the pens must be made to the specifications outlined by a sixteen page document which was first promulgated over fifty years ago. Among the requirements? The pens “must be able to write continuously for a mile and in temperatures up to 160 degrees and down to 40 degrees below zero.”

In all, the U.S. government orders $5 million worth of these pens a year (with 60% going to the military) — a small part of the spending under the Wagner-O’Day (now Javitz-Wagner-O’Day) Act. The Act, which was revised in 1971 to include people with “significant disabilities” as eligible for the program, is administered through an organization called AbilityOne, and helps to employ over 40,000 such people. In total, the government spends over $650 million (as recently as 2009) annually on AbilityOne goods and services.

Bonus fact: The U.S. space program does not use Skilcraft pens. They use a special pen, one which can write at any angle — important in the vacuum of space, and where there is no gravity. The pen, called the Fisher Space Pen after Paul C. Fisher, whose company created it, will work even in extreme temperatures. And unlike pencils (or even most pens), they are designed to be incredibly durable, as to avoid a breakage which could result in floating shrapnel. Rumors that the Soviets used pencils while the Americans invested millions to create this pen are untrue, both for that reason, and because the Fisher Space Pen was developed using private funding, and only recouped its investment when NASA and other nations’ space programs — including the Soviets — began purchasing them.

From the Archives: Space Needles: Billions of them, in fact.

RelatedThe Fisher Space Pen. $14.35, 4.5 stars on 54 reviews, many of which are absolute raves. Yes, people rave about spending fourteen dollars on a pen.

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