MP 4000 Postal Scale
Metal Products Engineering, Inc.

There are certain objects whose sheer functional elegance and simplicity mark them as near-perfect examples of inconspicuous consumption. These products, whose essential rightness  bespeaks an ideal marriage of form and function, forge beyond the realm of mere utility and in the process become Beauty. My roster of such items, which includes the Better Housewares garlic press, the Dial-a-Pick toothpick dispenser, and the eternal Brannock Device foot-measuring gizmo, recently gained a new entry when I encountered the MP 4000 postal scale, a brilliant example of industrial design thats as pleasing to look at as it is to use.

The MP 4000 is stamped from chrome-plated steel, measures four inches from stem to stern, and is shaped in a graceful, stylized crescent. Its design is simultaneously modest and ingenious: At one end is an alligator clip; toward the other, a small wire pointer that swings above a series of engraved calibration markings; a looped wire handle completes the picture. Hang the handle from your index finger, hang a letter or small parcel from the clip, and then watch as the pointer registers the precise weight, up to four ounces. A postal rate card included with each MP 4000 shows the necessary postage.

As a busy fanzine editor with lots of mail-order business and little time to trudge down to the post office, I get plenty of use out of my MP 4000. But even if I never mailed another letter, I'm sure I'd continue to fiddle with this product -- it s fun to use. While most of us regard scales with indifference at best and abject loathing at worst, the MP 4000 is more like a toy. A mechanism unto itself, with all its working parts exposed in plain view, it effectively demystifies a little branch of the world of physics. The MP 4000 doesn t just weigh your outgoing mail -- it lets you play.

The MP 4000's history dates back to the early 1900s, when a prototype bearing little resemblance to the current model was produced. In 1972 a regional scale company brought this prototype to Metal Products Engineering, a Los Angeles metal-stamping firm. MPE had the scale redesigned, resulting in the version we see today, and acquired the rights to the product a few years later.

As MPE marketing director Paula Luppen explained to me, the firm's primary business is making specialized widgets for clients like "G.E., Jacuzzi, and lots of small companies you ve never heard of." Since merchandising isn't MPE's strong suit -- the scale is the only consumer product the company sells -- the MP 4000 has received little advertising or promotional support and is sold primarily via mail-order. Despite these limitations, Luppen said annual sales are around 150,000 units.

Luppen was understandably coy when I asked if she knew that some drug dealers use the MP 4000 to weigh their wares. But she said MPE has received letters from students, home brewers, weavers, and physics teachers, all testifying to the scale's non-postal uses. Then there was the letter from the Arizona reptile scientist "who wrote us to say he uses it to weigh the reptile eggs and baby reptiles."

This diversity of use is unsurprising -- the MP 4000 is the sort of engagingly playful gadget that can inspire fanatical devotion from the right kind of customer. "See, that s the thing about this product," said Luppen, inadvertently lurching into the very heart of inconspicuous consumption, "either you really  appreciate it or you just don't see the point."

$5.75 postpaid from

Metal Products Engineering, Inc.
3050 Leonis Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90058