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Tool vs. Die

In 1975, in a hotel room in Tehran, Tim Leatherman fashioned a cardboard model of something he called the Pocket Survival Tool, a gadget that would ultimately make him rich and change the face of tinkering forever. A native Oregonian with a degree in mechanical engineering, Leatherman and his wife were touring the world in a reluctant Fiat 500 when the idea of an all-in-one tool--part pliers, part Swiss Army knife--came to him in a moment of skinned-knuckle inspiration.

Thirty-two years later, Leatherman’s invention has evolved from a homely widget into a brilliantly elegant and indispensable tool, a palm-sized dreadnought of stainless-steel utility that can saw down a sapling, sharpen a hatchet or tighten eyeglass screws with equal ease. Millions have been sold, and if you own a fishing rod, hiking boots or an ATV, you probably own one of these as well.

Tim Leatherman was better with engineering than with law. He failed to patent the distinctive design of his multitool--it unfolds like a Philippine butterfly knife to reveal needle-nose jaws while various implements (can opener, scissors) pivot from the handle ends--and by the mid-'90s Leatherman had lots of competition from companies such as Gerber and Victorinox, to say nothing of the freighters of cheap knockoffs arriving from China. Though Leatherman continues to dominate the multitool segment (and Leatherman himself enjoys a globe-trotting retirement), the Portland-based company has been obliged to diversify and renovate its product line.

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I offer all of this as helpful background, because if you search for “leatherman” on the Web, well, you’re likely to get some surprises of the Village People variety.

As part of its new product media blitz, Leatherman recently sent me its new Charge AL, the high-end version of the landmark Wave, one of which I’ve owned for about a decade. I dug my Wave out of my backpack to compare. To note the evolution of this tool is to appreciate the curious trajectory of American resourcefulness. My Wave is cased in hard-edged, stamped steel that will work up a blister on a tender palm. The Charge AL is shrouded in panels of softly curved and anodized aircraft aluminum, obviously the work of ergonomists with soft mitts. The new tool has a 1/64th-inch screw bit--straight-edged and Phillips head--which would be zero help if you’re stuck on Mt. Rainier but probably damn useful if you’re on the Geek Squad at Best Buy, swapping out motherboards.

In other words, the Leatherman has grown more urbane and more urban, less mechanical and more technical, less a tool of survival and more a saver of steps.

Tools imply the kind of world that needs fixing--after all, what good is a screwdriver if there are no screws?--and so you can read the Leatherman as a text of our times. It’s a tool you would expect to arise when unprecedented mobility takes people far from their toolboxes and home workshops. When I think about Tim Leatherman’s nine-month, 20-country trip in the finicky Fiat, when he invented the multitool, I’m astonished by the audacity of it. Was there ever a time when Americans roamed the Earth with such impunity? To think that all he required was a better set of pliers.

The Leatherman also suggests a kind of Archimedes-like hubris: Give me a Leatherman and a place to stand, and I’ll move the world.

Married to convenience, impatient with delay, we, the Leatherman audience, have grown accustomed to maximum consolidation in everything from our malls to our iPhones. Especially our cars: A BMW X5 sport-utility can burn up the autobahn at 120 mph, pull off at a Schwarzwald exit and proceed to climb a tree in four-wheel drive without ever waking the children.

We even like our movie heroes to unfold and swivel and deploy hidden limbs, a la “Transformers.”

If the Leatherman tool was borne of self-reliance, it’s being carried by a darker force, namely fear. According to David Bowen, manager of www.multitool.org--I know, there’s a website for everything--sales of these gadgets have gone way up since 9/11, driven by a kind of survivalist mentality jarred loose by the trauma of that day. “It’s kind of understood now, after the tsunami and Katrina, you’re going to be on your own for 72 hours,” says Bowen. He notes that the new Gerber knives slogan is “fend for yourself.”

Not coincidentally, I think, we’ve seen the rise of cable TV shows--"Man vs. Wild,” “Survivorman"--that play to fears of an urban diaspora to come.

I am not immune to the survivalist impulse--I keep my backpack in the garage preloaded in case I have to bug out with the family--but I doubt the Leatherman will save us from the jihadist boogeyman.

And yet, better to be with it than without it. A stainless-steel magic wand, a toolbox in a holster, a fixer of things that need fixing, the Leatherman feels good in my hands, so reliably heavy, so endlessly useful, so razor-sharp in all the right places.


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