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Introducing the Invar Cubic Inch

One challenge of properly capturing and communicating physical products online is that of scale. By the time we’re ready to release a new Craighill product, we’ve spent so many hours picking it up, looking at it, and thinking about it, that it practically feels like a part of ourselves. And that level of familiarity can also come with some blind spots. Over the years we’ve had a number of customers express surprise that some of our products are larger or smaller in person than they had anticipated based on our studio photography.

In order to rectify this problem we started thinking about making a physical object that we could place in certain product photography on our website that would demonstrate the scale of the product. Internally this became known as the cubic inch. It existed in a purely conceptual form for months, but one day last fall we decided it was time to embark on actually creating this object. It’s an inherently — almost comically — simple idea, and so we started really drilling down into the question: what is an inch? As it turns out, in the endlessly arbitrary and antiquated glory that is Imperial measurement system, the inch was originally defined as being equal to three barleycorns (another unit of measure) or “three grains of barley, dry and round, placed end to end, lengthwise.” Highly scientific, to say the least. Over the years the inch has become slightly more standardized, but if we were to produce an object that would be our spatial reference for all products moving forward, we wanted to make sure it was as precise as possible. Enter Invar.

Through a bit of research, trying to figure out how to make the most precise metal cubic inch possible, we discovered a specialty metal called Invar. Invented in 1896 by the Swiss physicist Charles Edouard Guillaume, Invar is a nickel-iron alloy that is remarkable for it’s dimensional stability. It has the lowest coefficient of thermal expansion of any known metal alloy under earth conditions, which essentially means that unlike other metals, as Invar heats and cools, it hardly expands and contracts at all. So when you make a cubic inch out of it, it will always be (almost) exactly one inch in all directions. Our Invar Cubic Inch is precise to 0.001”, which is half the thickness of a standard piece of printer paper. The invention of Invar was a breakthrough for scientific measurement devices due to its’ extreme precision, and Guillaume was awarded the Nobel prize in physics for its’ invention. Not bad.

So we went on our way and worked with a machinist friend of ours in Rhode Island to actually manufacture the object. After having received them at our office here in New York, we couldn’t stop playing around with them. I’d find myself absentmindedly fiddling with one while on conference calls, and it quickly was awarded a coveted spot on my desk with all of my other beatiful and largely useless objects. It turns out that it’s not just a super precise unit of measure, it’s also a nice thing to look at and play with. We decided that we’d accidentally designed a new product.

The last piece of the puzzle was to engrave the specs (1 cu in, ± 0.001) on one face of the cube. To make that happen, we employed our mini-mill, which we recently retrofitted with CNC capability. For those of you who have no idea what that means, imagine a sophisticated, computer-controlled drill. And we used it to engrave tiny letters and numbers on the Invar Cubic Inch.

This is by far our most self-indulgent and ridiculous product to date. But our hope is that there are people out there who are as captivated and amused by the stories behind products as we are. The journey to make this thing revealed a lot of interesting information and taught us a lot about how things are made. And so the product itself now exists as a celebration and culmination of that journey. Thanks for reading, and we promise our next release will be at least slightly less cerebral.

If we've piqued your interest, you can pick up your own Invar Cubic Inch right here.


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