Late one night while watching a craft show on T.V., the female host was assembling a project with a battery powered screw gun and referred to the fasteners she was using as “Robertson’s.” They zoomed in for a close-up and I recognized it as a square drive. I know that the show is produced in Canada, and having my laptop not more than a few feet away, I entered “Robertson” into my favorite search engine to see what information I could find. In my mind, square drive screws had only been around for about 15 years. I found that I was off by about 90 years.
A Canadian citizen, Peter Lymburner Robertson worked as a pitchman for a Philadelphia tool company, a traveling salesman who sold goods at trade fairs and on street corners throughout eastern Canada. He spent his spare time in his workshop.
In about 1907, Robertson invented the unique screw and screwdriver because of a need he encountered while using a traditional slotted type. We’ve all done it. You are turning a screw in and it slips off the screw head right into your hand. Ouch! He received the patent in 1909.
The secret of Robertson’s invention is the exact shape of the recess, which is squared, with chamfered edges, tapering sides and a pyramidal bottom.
Robertson originally licensed the screw in England, but the people he was dealing with intentionally drove the company into bankruptcy and purchased the complete rights from the trustee, thus eliminating any interest Robertson had. He spent a small fortune buying back the rights. Because of the hard lessons learned from this venture, he refused to allow anyone to make the screws under license. This may have been his biggest downfall.
When Henry Ford tested the Robertson screw for his assembly line, he discovered that he could save nearly 2 hours of assembly time per vehicle. Ford, wanting to protect his assembly advantage, asked for a licensing agreement from Robertson so that he could manufacture and distribute the screws.
By this time, Robertson had expanded into Europe. However, when World War I struck, his European partners turned out to be less than honorable.
Because he truly believed in his product, he felt that giving a license to Ford would not be in his best interest.
In 1936, American Henry F. Phillips of Portland, Oregon, also a traveling salesman, patented his cruciform screw, which during World War II became the international standard.
Mr. Phillips had no such reservation over licensing to Ford, and, as they say, the rest is history!
Still remarkably popular, the square-head screw controls 85-90% of the market in Canada. Americans are now becoming more familiar with the design as evidenced by its use in automobile, door and window manufacturing, furniture, and many other areas of high speed automated assembly.
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