Knife and scabbard, Wiltshire Staysharp MKI, metal/plastic, designed by Stuart Devlin, made by Wiltshire Cutlery Company, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 1969
In 1964 a US market survey showed that 80% of Americans didn't know how to sharpen a knife. This inspired Dennis Jackson, a design engineer for Wiltshire Cutlery in Melbourne, who saw an opportunity to create a knife that sharpens itself. In an instant he had identified a whole new range of products with an advantage over any blade ever sold before.
He invented a spring loaded sharpening block inside a sheath or scabbard, which sharpened the knife every time it was taken out or replaced. A number of versions were tested in domestic kitchens in 1966 and two years later Stuart Devlin (who had designed Australia's decimal coins) was hired to create a streamlined plastic scabbard and handle for the knife. It was test marketed in Perth in time for Christmas 1969. This type of Staysharp knife was the first to be mass produced and launched in the rest of Australia in August 1970.
In 1971 Wiltshire used a series of ads featuring well known fashion model and mum, Maggie Tabberer and instantly created the perception that their product was fashionable, practical and desirable. Since then more than 8 million Staysharp knives have been sold, with patents and design registrations in 37 countries.
Designed by Stuart Devlin in 1969 based on an invention by Dennis Jackson, design engineer for Wiltshire cutlery in Melbourne in 1965.
Manufactured in Melbourne by Wiltshire Cutlery Company (later Wiltshire International and McPherson's Homewares) late 1969-early 1970.
This was the first type of Staysharp knife to be mass produced and sold on the Australian market in 1970.
In 1965 Dennis Jackson built a range of prototypes for a spring loaded sharpening mechanism to be contained in a sheath or scabbard so that as the knife was pulled out or replaced it would be sharpened. In 1966 selected Melbourne households were asked to use these rough prototypes in the kitchen for six months and report back. Their response was overwhelmingly positive and Wiltshite Cutlery decided to invest in a designer and equipment to build a new knife.
Tungsten carbide was tested and selected as the best sharpening material, very had martensitic stainless steel was tested for the blade and an ivory coloured handle was made from moulded acetate.
In 1968 Stuart Devlin (who designed Australia's decimal coins in 1966) was employed to shape a streamlined plastic scabbard that everyone would like in their kitchen. It took until 1969 for a batch of knives to be ready and then the company chose Christmas in Perth as an isolated controllable test market. They used a TV ad and demonstrations in shops to sell knives for a (then) very expensive $6.95 each. Positive reactions were tinged by a general dislike for the ivory scabbard, so Wiltshire replaced it with this design, a black handle and a 'groovy' wood-grained plastic scabbard.
The Wiltshire factory in Melbourne began mass-production of the newly named 'Staysharp Mk I' knife for a national Australian release in August 1970. The new knives were given away to sales staff in shops to 'pre-sell' this new knife to them, there was a TV ad and Wiltshire held bread slicing and fruit cutting competitions to convince buyers that Staysharp was more than a sales gimmick.
But the one-piece scabbard trapped shavings from the blade sharpeners, and Wiltshire engaged Peter Bayley to redesign the scabbards for two new knives while Jackson devised new blade lengths and shapes for different uses. Bayley developed a two-piece scabbard with a removable sharpening cassette, and Staysharp 752 and 753 were released for sale in 1972 in the even groovier colours of burnt orange, tibetan gold, avocado and white.
In the same year, Australian patents were granted for Jackson's original idea of a self sharpening knife (Wiltshire eventually applied for patents and design registrations in 35 countries) and the first in a series of TV ads (from 1972-1980) was made featuring Maggie Tabberer who was portrayed as a no-nonsense, modern, liberated woman... but still in the kitchen!
The 752 and 753 knives won a Prince Philip Prize Certificate of Merit for Australian Design in 1972 and were listed in the Australian Design Index, obtaining the Good Design Label in 1972. They were used as the basis for a range of 11 knives, carving forks and scissors until 1989.
By 1978 manufacturing costs in Australia were being driven upwards by inflation and wage increases, and Wiltshire had the blades made in Taiwan and the plastic components made in Hong Kong.
Staysharp knives were distributed by Australian owned subsidiaries of Wiltshire in the UK and the USA and by the Tefal company in France. These markets influenced the redesign of the whole range in 1988, sold around the world in 1990.
This is an unused sample retained by the manufacturer until donated
The Wiltshire Staysharp knife self-sharpening system is an important innovation in domestic technology and achieved high market penetration in Australia, where 2.8 million knives were sold between 1969 and 1978. The Staysharp self-sharpening system was patented in Australia and overseas and became the mainstay of the Wiltshire Cutlery Company for 15 years. Export sales of the knives exceeded 3.8 million units by 1978.