If you have ever served in the military, or the federal government, the chances are very, very good, that you used one, had one in your pocket, and no doubt had several at your home. The black, utility military ball point pen, made by Skilcraft Industries for the Blind turns 50 this month.
The pen’s history traces back to April 20, 1968, when it was introduced to government buyers, said the National Industries for the Blind. The nonprofit organization was tapped to supply pens after another manufacturer made 13 million defective ballpoints in 1967.
The pens have stringent requirements — 16 pages’ worth. The pens must be able to write a continuous line 1 mile long and keep the ink flowing despite extreme temperatures — from 40 degrees below zero to 160 degrees.
For five decades, the task of making those pens has been entrusted to blind workers.
“It may take us longer to learn it, but once we learn those jobs, we do those jobs very well,” said Alexander, who supervises about 30 workers in Greensboro, North Carolina. “And we turn out a top quality garment or writing instrument.”
The pens are sold to the federal government through a program started in 1938 to create jobs for people with disabilities.
In 2016, the AbilityOne program sold $3.3 billion in goods and services, with more than half coming from military orders.
Alexander said his 47 years at the North Carolina plant have helped him buy a home and educate his children. The plant employs about 140 visually impaired people to make products ranging from Army combat jackets to clipboards.
In the pen’s heyday, the government bought about 70 million a year. Now the Greensboro plant and a second in Milwaukee combine to produce about 8 million of the flagship retractable ballpoints annually, with parts supplied by a third site in Missouri. All three employ visually impaired workers.
Lynn Larsen, who has worked at Greensboro Industries of the Blind for 40 years, said the job helped her support her family after her father died. More recently, it was a source of pride when her nephew deployed to Afghanistan with the Army.
“He would tell the other soldiers that his aunt Lynn made that pen, and they thought it was real cool,” she said.
The pens not only work well in all conditions, they’ve been used by troops as a field expedient tool for a variety of tasks that the handy little writing tool was never designed for, from fixing holes in equipment to emergency medical procedures.
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Photo courtesy AP