Today in Tedium: In a world full of big problems (including some that were delaying me from starting this newsletter at a proper time), I’m going to focus on the smallest possible problem I can think of right now. It’s not so much a first-world problem as a miniature one. About a week ago, I got a splinter in my finger. It really hurt at first. It was microscopic—I could barely see it, but there it was. I could not get it out, until I tried again earlier this week. Then, after much effort on my part, it was finally removed. It still kinda hurts, but at least it’s gone, no longer embedded in my skin. Helping in this endeavor was the tweezer, a device that remains unheralded for some reason, but deserves a big nod of approval. Today’s Tedium is a series of vignettes about tweezers, because we saw the debate last night, and well, vignettes are basically all we can handle after that. — Ernie @ Tedium
Today’s Tedium is sponsored by Cubbit. Learn more about them below.
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The number of ancient Egyptian tweezers one might find at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia, a place where bad things apparently happen. Per Atlas Obscura, it’s one of the many artifact collections at the museum, covering a period of roughly 2,000 years, but it reflects the fact that tweezers, in one form or another, have been with us for at least 5,000 years, dating to prehistoric Egypt and India.
Tweezer resharpening may be the most obscure, niche service ever offered inside the pages of a magazine
If you or someone you love read magazines about watchmaking in the 1970s or 1980s, you might have been pulled in by a simple ad published by a man named Harvey C. Watkins.
It was simplistic, not exactly showy, a classified ad buried in the back of a magazine on the nichiest of niche topics. But there it was: “Superior Tweezer Resharpening. $2.50 each, including return first class postage. Minimum of three tweezers. Advance payment required.”
Now, far be it from me to tell you how to spend your money, but an expert tweezer resharpener was not something I knew someone needed to be.
But on the other hand, this ad ran in a magazine, the Horological Times, that focuses on the art of watchmaking. (Free slogan idea: “What time is it? Time for a new issue.”)
Basically, this tweezer resharpener’s business fit right in with the magazine in which the ad was published—a magazine that is still published today by the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute, a group whose tightly wound history goes all the way back to 1866. It was one of the few fields at the time that worked with things at such a small scale on a regular basis.
Case In point: In a 1981 issue of this magazine where Watkins’ ad ran, one of the main features was a piece titled “A Plethora of Pliers,” which is such a bizarre headline I based this issue’s headline off that headline.
So why am I focused on this random classified ad in a trade publication for people who work with tiny machines that fit on your wrists? Because, when I was researching tweezers, I found an article so unusual, so pure of heart, that I needed to share it with my readers.
The headline, from The Orlando Sentinel in 1985: “Daughter Carries on Father’s Tweezer-Sharpening Trade.”
The piece, about the then-retired Watkins and his daughter Phyllis Hildreth, discusses how Watkins got into the trade two decades prior, in part because of a problem Watkins ran into as a watchmaker: His tweezers, made of high-quality alloys and produced in Switzerland, would keep chipping. At the same time, the prices of good tweezers, which are more expensive than you might have expected, just kept going up.
Despite the modest ad, Watkins apparently refinished thousands of pairs of tweezers over the years, with Hildreth picking up the slack after her father left the business in the mid-1980s (And yes, this family firm had a trade secret: Hildreth agreed not to let anyone see the machine her father developed to handle tweezer resharpening.)
The kicker of this wonderful article comes from Horological Times managing editor Maury Norrell, who need the utter obscurity of this business: “If I had to get a pair of tweezers refinished, I don’t know where I’d go, other than Watkins.”
Now, I can’t find evidence that this tweezer firm survived into the modern day, but there are those that handle similar work. Express Instrument Service, a firm that has existed since 1979, handles tweezer refinishing for surgical-grade instruments. And for consumers who want their tweezers to stay sharp, the manufacturer Tweezerman offers free sharpening to those who purchase its high-end tweezing product. (Given the up-close nature of tweezers, however, it’s worth noting that COVID-19 has disrupted this process.)
Let it never be said that people don’t take sharp tweezers seriously.
“In the mid 17th century, tweeze was extended to tweezer, while the plural tweezes became tweezers. Trouse became trousers in much the same way. In the 1930s, tweeze was re-formed from tweezers to mean ‘to pluck with tweezers’.”
— A passage from the Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, discussing the fact that the word “tweeze” both originated the modern term “tweezer” and was brought back as a verb form of “tweezer” roughly 300 years later. Initially, a tweezer described a surgical instrument inside of a case called a tweeze, but that changed over time until the original definition was forgotten.
The aptitude-testing nut who came up with a dexterity test for tweezer users
The thing about tweezer users is that, unless you’re using them on a regular basis, they can be a complete challenge to pull off well. They are often intended to grab things at scales far smaller than the average person is equipped to properly handle.
Which explains why there’s actually a standardized test to analyze a person’s aptitude with tweezers.
The O’Connor Tweezer Dexterity Test, which sells on Amazon for a shockingly expensive $160+, is a test of precision and manual aptitude that relies on placing a series of pins into specific holes on a board. The test is fairly simple and a good way to measure whether a person is handy with handling small, precise things with their hands. (Check out a video of someone doing it, above. IMPORTANT EDITORIAL NOTE: DO NOT SEARCH ON YOUTUBE FOR TWEEZERS. IT IS GROSS.)
Its inventor, Johnson O’Connor, had a knack for developing things like this, first through an in-house position at General Electric in the 1920s in which he developed a series of skills tests, including the dexterity test, which first found use among GE’s 3,000 employees. The tests, 17 in total, weren’t specifically tied to physical tests; they also emphasized things such as clerical ability, personality, observation, number memory, and visual imagination. (As noted in his 1973 New York Times obit, he also found a niche in vocabulary building.)
While these concepts were first built for corporate America, they soon found homes in academia (they were further developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stevens institute of Technology) and in the form of a nonprofit that still exists today, the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation.
Know Your Real Abilities: Understanding and Developing Your Aptitudes, a 1948 book partly inspired by O’Connor’s work by Charles V. And Margaret E. Broadley, put the reasoning for the approach as such:
Most of us want work in which we can put our hearts, in which we feel we are making some contribution to the world. But we see no way out in our modern world where so many jobs are routine, where individual development has been pushed aside to make way for material progress. Yet we sense vaguely that we have more in us; we feel restless and dissatisfied with ourselves; we feel inferior and inadequate. But we do not know what to do about it.
This mindset about work abilities helping to define whether a person is a match for the field they’re in is a driving force behind the nonprofit that bears Johnson’s name.
“Aptitude testing is the starting place to identify strengths,” said Alina Myers, director of Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation Inc. in Washington, a nonprofit educational organization founded nearly 70 years ago. “Aptitudes don’t change over time.”
And obviously, there are lots of fields where the ability to use a tweezer in this way can come in handy. For example, electrical engineering, a field for which soldering is a key skill set; for another, surgery, where precise movements are often necessary. And this test, beyond its value for aptitude testing, is also a great option for rehabilitation, for those trying to improve dexterity after an injury.
You might laugh at the idea of taking a bunch of random tests to understand your skill sets, but these tests are vigorous, and apparently take a lot out of the people who do them.
“Trials they were. I dropped the tweezers. Whole sequences of numbers, once shown, were promptly forgotten,” one person wrote in a testimonial. “A vocabulary test left my smug self-assurance as an erudite man of letters in shambles. First I felt challenged, then frustrated, and, in the end, exhausted.”
(That person was pinned as a communicator, which makes sense, because as we all know, communicators can’t tweeze.)
Unlike me, you do not have to use a pair of tweezers to remove a splinter. You can do other things to remove splinters embedded within your skin, notes Mental Floss, including epsom salt and by putting baking soda in the injured area. The American Academy of Dermatology says, though, that if you can’t get it out after a certain point of time, there’s no shame in going to a doctor.
The world recently lost an icon of moving tiny things. Fortunately, the world made a point of honoring him for his work just in the nick of time.
Arthur Ashkin, a scientist who was widely considered the father of optical tweezers—the concept of moving and isolating microscopic things using lasers—died just last week at the age of 98; his death was only reported on Monday.
For a 98-year-old, he was pretty busy. In 2018, he became the oldest recipient of the Nobel Prize for this work, which he uncovered the basic concepts for in 1970, while working at Bell Labs. (He shared the prize with Gerard Mourou and Donna Strickland—with Strickland just the third woman to win the prize since 1901.)
For decades, Ashkin worked on this concept, which allows for the movement of atoms, nanoparticles, and droplets—an amazing feat that allows researchers to analyze suitably tiny things. Over the years, it has been a gateway for lots of other research variants. Some are even using it to help detect cancer early.
“This light is shining on you. Do you know that it’s pushing you? Most people don’t,” he told Business Insider by way of explanation last year. “But it is, because it’s got energy. The only thing is, it’s so small you don’t feel it.”
His work has proven inspiring in other ways, too. Just recently, researchers at Duke University came up with a way to do particle isolation with sound waves.
Despite this, it was not totally clear whether he would receive a Nobel Prize for Physics in his lifetime. A colleague of his won the prize for related work based on his discovery in the 1990s, but Ashkin had to wait until he was 96 years old for his chance at Nobel glory. When he received the call for it, he thought it was a scam. It wasn’t—and as Business Insider noted, he saw an opportunity to turn his late-in-life research into reflective concentrator tubes, which he believed could help improve the effectiveness of solar panels, into something tangible.
Whether that happens at this point, he certainly deserved the success he eventually achieved.
Tweezers, when broken down, are ultimately about control—control of the small things, rather than the massive structures that can’t be isolated. Perhaps, even as I look at my slightly mangled but splinter-free finger, I know that I can at least control that, even if controlling everything else is out of the realm of possibility right now.
I wonder if an optical tweezer would have worked on my finger.