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History Guy: The Screwdriver Wars

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
April 28, 2023 3:03 am

History Guy: The Screwdriver Wars

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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April 28, 2023 3:03 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, the differing fates of the Robertson and the Phillips head screwdrivers demonstrates that innovation is intimately tied to historical events. Here’s The History Guy with the story of the screwdriver wars.

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Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb

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Circle's the place where crypto meets stability, where local businesses meet global customers, and the US dollar meets USDC. Visit slash podcast. This is Our American Stories, and our next story comes from a man who's simply known as the History Guy.

His videos are watched by hundreds of thousands of people of all ages on YouTube. The History Guy is also heard right here on Our American Stories. Here's the History Guy with the story of the Screwdriver Wars. Screws as fasteners were not apparently produced until around the 15th century, nearly as no mention is in a late 15th century manuscript. Their initial use was as a fastener for parts of medieval jousting armor and, in nearly the same period, for early firearms. The earliest screwdrivers were built to service these weapons and they were called either a screw turner or a turn screw and they had a pear shaped wooden handle and otherwise looked a lot like a modern flat headed screwdriver but these screws and screwdrivers would have been custom made and used on very expensive devices like wheel locks and jousting armor and so screws were not for the common folk. In 1760 brothers Job and William Wyatt of Staffordshire patented a screw making machine that used a file to cut in the threads following the pitch of a lead screw. This allowed mass production of screws and was a precursor to industrial mass production machines. The idea of using a lathe of some sort to cut threads was variously improved upon until the process for cold rolling threads was perfected in the 1880s. But virtually all of these screws use just a few turning methods, either a hexagon or square that was turned externally or a flat slot cut to turn internally. And as anyone who has ever used one knows, flat headed screws and screwdrivers have their problems.

But solutions were on the horizon. Peter L. Robertson was born in Haldimand County, Ontario, Canada in 1879. A tinkerer, Robertson produced a number of inventions including a new design for cufflinks and even a better mousetrap. In 1905 he received a patent in Canada for a new design of a corkscrew that centered itself on the bottle. Around the turn of the century Robertson was working through Eastern Canada as what was called a high pitch man, meaning a traveling salesman for a Philadelphia tool company.

High pitch men would sell their wares say on a street corner at a county fair calling out their wares and among the things that he was selling was a device of his own design. Robert's 20th century wrench brace was a multi tool that could be used as a monkey wrench, as a brace, as a bench vise, as a screwdriver. While demonstrating the screwdriver, which was flat bladed, the blade slipped and seriously cut his hand. That gave him the idea of a new type of screwdriver head that was less likely to slip or cam out. In 1875 Alan Cummings of New York City had been granted a patent for a screw that used a cavity, either a square or triangle, rather than a slot to address the same problem. Cummings description noted, it is well known that the ordinary screw head provided with a slot is very susceptible to injury caused mainly by the slipping of the screwdriver from the slot when the screw is being set home in wood or metal. By omitting the usual slot and using the proper shaped cavity and screwdriver, perfect safety is ensured to the metallic cap.

But Cummings design had a flaw. The way that you made the cavity that the screwdriver fit into was by stamping it with a die. Stamping it deeply enough that the screwdriver would set inside it would deform or weaken the screw head.

Robertson had a better solution, which he applied for a patent in 1907. His screw tapered the sides of the square gradually down to a pyramid shape. This not only prevented the head from being deformed, but actually helped align the metal grain, as he explained, knitting the atoms together for greater strength. It had the added advantage of less waste, since the slot of a slot headed screw was usually cut out, losing a bit of metal and weakening the head of the screw. Because it was less likely to cam out, you could use more torque with the Robertson screw and driver. As it was self-centering, it could be used with one hand, whereas a slotted screwdriver usually required two. The head of the screw was less likely to deform, and the Robertson screwdriver was much better able to still remove the screw if it did. It also worked better than a slotted screw if the screw had been painted over. Robertson's screw and driver were particularly attractive to furniture makers and boat builders, where it was more of a problem if a flathead screw cammed out because it would damage the material around it, damage the value of the product. But perhaps best of all is that Robertson's screw could be cold-formed, that is, because the stamp tapered down inside the screw, that meant that you could build the screw without ever having to heat the metal.

Cummings' design, as ingenious as it was, probably was never made during its patent life, because the screw simply couldn't be easily manufactured. But Robertson's design could be cheaply manufactured, in the millions. Calling his invention the biggest little invention of the 20th century so far, Robertson gained enough investors to open the P.L. Robertson Manufacturing Company Limited in 1908. He built a factory in Milton, Ontario, which gave him tax breaks and a $10,000 loan. The patent was approved February 1909, and by then the company was already filling orders.

Robertson was just 30 years old. While the Robertson Company described the initial years as hard, with local competitors even challenging their patent, the Robertson screw slowly gained adherence among boatbuilders and furniture makers. In 1913, Fisher Auto Body opened a factory in Walkerville, Ontario, baking wooden parts for the Ford Model T. The Robertson screw offered a great advantage for manufacturing, and Fisher became one of Robertson's largest customers, using some 700 screws per body. Robertson later designed a screw for metal to use on the all-metal body of the Ford Model A. Having been awarded international patents, Robertson saw the opportunity to expand abroad, and so he went to Gillingham, England, and established a company called the Recess Screw Company. He marketed to British industry using the slogan, the screw that grips the driver. But his real plan was to manufacture screws in England, but sell them in Germany and Russia.

And the First World War and the Russian Revolution foiled his plan. Recess screws turned to war production during the Great War, and produced things like firing needles and hand grenade pins. But after the war, recess screws failed. There seems to have been several factors involved, including a glut of supply following the war, and the actions of some unscrupulous investors, but Robertson resigned as the director of the company. But the company in Canada was still doing well, and Robertson looked to expand into the United States.

Then Henry Ford came to the table. An analysis had shown that the use of Robertson screws in the Ford plants in Canada had saved $2.60 a car, a significant savings for a car that retailed for only $390, and which was being produced in the millions. Ford wanted to use Robertson screws in all his U.S. plants. But Ford wanted to stay in production in an exclusive contract, and Robertson stubbornly refused to give up that control. When the deal fell through, Robertson not only did not get the contract for the American Ford plants, but lost the contracts in Canada, almost a third of his business. After three failed tries, Robertson decided to never try to license his screws outside of Canada again.

But his marketing skills made his screws and drivers the screwdrivers of choice in Canada, even though just across the border of the United States, they're hardly known at all. But Ford was still using flat screws, which are even more troublesome on automated assembly lines, where if a screw cammed out, it cost time and slowed manufacturing. The solution started with a patent application in 1932 by John P. Thompson, an auto mechanic living in Portland, Oregon. Thompson's solution was similar to Robertson's. By tapering the screw head, a star die could be used without distorting the metal.

And again, stamping the tapered design made the metal actually stronger. In 1933, when the patent was granted, Thompson assigned it to Henry Frank Phillips. Like Robertson, Henry Phillips had been a traveling salesman.

By the time the patent was assigned to him, he was the managing director of a mining concern, the Oregon Copper Company. It's not really clear why Thompson assigned the patent to Phillips, but Phillips refined the design and was granted more patents. Unlike Robertson, Phillips did not intend to manufacture screws, but hoped to license the patents to manufacture and collect royalties.

Not surprisingly with the invention, Phillips got a lot of rejections from companies who told him the idea lacked promise for commercial success. But eventually Phillips convinced Eugene E. Clark of the American Screw Company of Providence, Rhode Island to manufacture the design. By 1934, the screw was available for consumers. In 1936, General Motors was invited to test the design. The Phillips head screw first went into use at GM, making the 1936 Cadillac.

Customers raved about the amount of work time saved. Within just a few years, virtually all U.S. automakers, including Ford, were using Phillips head screws. The airplane manufacturing and railroad industry likewise switched. By 1939, 20 companies had licenses to produce Phillips head screws. By 1940, 85% of U.S. screw manufacturers had a license for the design, and the company grossed more than 1.3 million adjusted dollars. While the Second World War limited foreign licenses, it established the Phillips head screw as an industry standard among wartime manufacturers. The hundreds of thousands of planes and motor vehicles built by the U.S. during the war were largely screwed together using Phillips head screws. While Robertson had Canada, Phillips screws are, by industry estimates, by far the most popular type of screw everywhere else in the world. The Robertson and Phillips screws were the culmination of the development of screw technology over a couple of hundred years, and they were two types that rose to the top in an era where there was a lot of innovation in the field. It's really ironic that the events of the First World War were part of the reason that the Robertson screw was never developed internationally, whereas events of the Second World War were the reason that the Phillips head screw was.

And the relative fates between the two say that invention isn't about just the inspiration and, pun intended, drive of the inventor, but of a complex interaction with historical forces and powerful personalities, things that can impact every tool in the toolbox. And you've been listening to The History Guy. If you want more stories of forgotten history, please subscribe to his YouTube channel. The History Guy, colon, history deserves to be remembered. The story of the Screwdriver War, here on Our American Stories. Learn more about Roku Stream Bar today at

Happy streaming! I'm Malcolm Graber. I live way out in the country. I drive everywhere.

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Exclusions apply. Inspired by Ubisoft's famous video game series, Assassin's Creed, the Echoes of History podcast offers a deep and fascinating dive into history. In this season's Assassin vs Templars, these two organizations have a rich history that takes its root in the medieval era and the time of the crusades within the Assassin's Creed universe. Hosted by Dan Snow and Matt Lewis from History Hit, each episode offers us a history of these two not-so-secret societies. New episodes weekly. Listen to Echoes of History, Assassins vs Templars on iHeart, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-04-28 04:39:22 / 2023-04-28 04:44:52 / 6

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