Time Magazine, APRIL 27, 1998 VOL. 151 NO. 16
The Men Who Broke Mach3
For razor scientists at World Shaving HQ, the face is the final frontier
By JOEL STEIN /BOSTON
Three of the cleanest-shaven men in the world are beaming. For 27 years the third blade, like Darwin's missing link or Fermat's last theorem, had eluded them. The idea of three blades dancing on the head of a razor was so preposterous that Saturday Night Live used it as a commercial parody in 1975. To the engineers at Gillette, that joke was a cruel mockery, a searing reminder of their limitations.
Last Tuesday the shame disappeared. Gillette is unveiling the Mach3, the three-bladed wonder these three engineers had often glimpsed but never captured. Giddy for men of their age and earnestness, they exhibit their high-tech gizmo in a small, unadorned office in a brick, Industrial Age building in South Boston topped with Hollywood-style letters spelling out WORLD SHAVING HEADQUARTERS. John Terry, the elderly, thick-glassed British engineer whose team came up with the design for the successor to the twin-track Sensor, cradles the prototype between his thumb and forefinger as if it were a Honus Wagner. Terry, who has two degrees in metallurgy, talks about his invention as if it were the fax machine.
"We do the far-out stuff," he boasts of his engineers in England. "I have made things that do horrible things to my face." He calls the Mach3--the first razor with racing stripes--his proudest achievement. It's not just the third blade, he explains. It's that they staggered the blades so each is progressively closer to the skin, dipped the ultra-thin blades in the same carbon that computer chips go into to make them stronger, and--here's the really big deal--made the blade pivot from the bottom, not the middle, forcing shavers to use it like a paintbrush. They also applied for 35 patents.
Security inside World Shaving Headquarters rivals the Pentagon's. The Mach3 is manufactured inside the Plywood Ranch, a section of the factory floor that is actually barricaded by steel. In the only major breach Steven Davis, an engineer at Wright Industries, a subcontractor that built one of the machines that manufacture the razor handles, was nabbed by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office and pleaded guilty to trying to sell a sketch of the Mach3. On Friday he was sentenced to two years and three months in federal prison.
More than 500 of America's best engineers, with degrees from such places as M.I.T. and Stanford, built this razor while their friends worked on the Mars Pathfinder. "In recruiting engineers," says Terry, "I say nowhere else makes thousands of miles of the sharpest thing known to man and has to worry about interaction with biological tissue. You don't have to worry about persuading them after that." Dan Lazarchik got a degree in mechanical engineering from M.I.T. and a master's in technical engineering from Boston University. "At first friends say, 'What's to it?' But it's amazing--more people want to talk to me about my job than to the people who have the sexier jobs at Intel. Everyone has something to say about shaving."
More than 300 volunteers take part in the shave-in-plant program. These men come to work, remove their shirts, enter one of 20 booths, receive shaving gear from a lab-coated technician, shave the left side of their face with one unmarked razor, the right half with another, and input their preferences into a computer. They risk profuse bleeding, they are not paid, and there is a sizable waiting list. This proves one of three things: either, as Gillette claims, its employees are very proud, or men are excited by all new technology, or people would rather shave at work. The manager of the program has a full beard.
These shavers are not testing the Mach3. They are testing the next razor, probably due out in eight to 10 years. The designers are done conceptualizing that one, guided by their motto, "If there's a better way to shave--and we believe there is--we will find it." When delivered by Mike Cowhig, a 30-year Gillette employee and senior vice president of manufacturing and technical operations, it sounds less like a threat to the competition than like something from Captain Kirk's log.
The Mach3 will arrive in stores in July, priced at $6.29 to $6.79 for four cartridges, or 35% more than Gillette's Sensor Excel. It will be promoted by a $300 million marketing budget that will include an ad involving a jet producing three sonic booms before morphing into a razor wielded by a guy who looks as if he grows as much facial hair as Matt Damon.
The next concern, Cowhig explains, is to make a Mach3 for women, many of whom are still using disposables. "Women aren't as evolved as shavers," he explains. Women's razors, Cowhig says, need even more research than men's, because they're used in the shower and in various ways, including in "some places they can't see in a mirror." Here his beam becomes a blush. It's hard to hide how you feel when you're one of the best-shaven men on the planet.
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