We’re all familiar with King Gillette’s early patent for the double edged safety razor, and his stroke of genius that was the simple, replaceable, flexible blade. But did you know that a very similar system was patented by Mr Benjamin Kiam at roughly the same time? A system, I might add, that had blades that would have been slightly easier to manufacture?
Mr Benjamin Kiem filed two patents on his invention, although the second one is just an improvement on the first. Looking at when he filed the patents – 1904 and 1907 – Mr Kiam was most likely inspired by the Gillette razor. The shape of the head and the use of a double edge blade is other giveaways. But while it’s interesting to see what was copied, it’s even more interesting to see what was new.
The overall design was fairly straight forward. A strong frame had the top cap as one side, and the blade and bottom plate rode on bars on either side. A bolt came up from the handle, and pressed the bottom plate and blade against the top cap. Nice, easy, and simple to grasp.
Where Gillette’s design used pins and holes to orient and secure the blade, Mr Kiem let the cutouts in the blade ride along two bars on either side of the razor head. This have several benefits. For the blade it means that instead of three holes in each blade, Mr Kiem would only have to punch a single hole hole between each blades before the continuous steel band was cut into length. For the base plate, it means no holes had to be drilled. And for the cap, no pins would have to be moulded, machined or otherwise secured. On the flip side the head is a complex shape and be hard to manufacture. As can be seen from the drawings, it would probably be easier to cast than to machine from a billet.
Or, as Mr Kiam describes the head in the patent text:
…comprising a main frame having side bars provided in their inner sides with recesses b and with projecting portions 5 and having the back plate rigid with said main frame and concaved on its inner face, the flexible blade and the guard-plate provided in their ends with notches to receive the inwardly-projecting portions 5 on the inner sides of the side bars of the main frame, and the handle provided with a screw turning through the cross-bar of the main frame and bearing against the guard plate and adapted to press the same toward the back plate, the guard-plate having a convex surface conforming to the concave surface of the back plate…From US patent #788,318
The main difference between Mr Kiam’s two patents is in the head. For the first patent he envisioned the frame and top cap is in one piece. In the second patent this assembly is in two parts, likely designed that way for easier manufacture. The seed for this idea is also present in the first patent, as can be seen from a careful examination of the text and drawing. His second patent also depicted square instead of round cutouts in the blade and bottom plate.
Overall I would say that Benjamin Kiam’s patents represents a very interesting road not taken… It should be possible to manufacture razors more or less to these patents today, but there would have to be quite major modifications done to make them work with modern, slotted double edged razor blades.