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Relic: Screw and Screwdriver

Caring for your gadgets goes further than cleaning your smartphone’s screen or making sure the insides of your PC aren’t dusty. Sometimes, this means taking it apart and replacing things. Everyone knows opening a gadget will void its warranty, but those who have a more advanced knowledge of how their gadgets work will find the screwdriver to be a valuable tool.

The screwdriver is defined as a tool with a handle and a shaft, and as it name says, it drives screws in (or out). Simple screwdrivers have a handle and a shaft, and a tip that is inserted into the screw head. Some screwdrivers have interchangeable tips—which come in handy if you’re taking apart (or putting together) something complex, while others are powered. So how did this incredible tool become a mainstay of any gadget repair kit?

The history of the screw and screwdriver go back to the first century; however, the true inventor is still unknown. Screws and screwdriver-shaped tools were made of wood back then. They were used for pressing wine, olive oil, and clothes. The metal screw and screwdriver were invented sometime in the late 15th century in Germany or France, where they were called schraubendreher (screwturner) in German and tournevis (turnscrew) in French. The first mention of the screwdriver was in a manuscript called the Housebook of Wolfegg Castle. Screws were used for lathes, securing armor, and for parts of primitive firearms such as the matchlock.

For 300 years, however, the advancement of the screwdriver itself was almost halted, although Englishman Jesse Ramsden invented a screw-cutting lathe in 1770, and he became known as the first person to successfully mass produce the screw. Another Englishman, Henry Maudslay, refined Ramsden’s invention to produce accurately sized screws by 1797, and American David Wilkinson invented machinery to mass produce threaded metal screws by 1798.

By the First Industrial Revolution, screws became more mandatory, and hence, the screwdriver rose to prominence. Brothers Job and William Wyatt produced screws on a machine that cut the slotted head and then the helix. Although their business venture failed, it made screws extremely cheap to produce and allowed innovators to refine the design of the screwdriver. With the explosion of industrial manufacturing, the screw and screwdriver both became key components in creating contemporary goods at low prices.

By 1908, socket head screws (now known as Robertson screws) became popular thanks to Canadian P.L. Robertson, who successfully commercialized the screw that bears his name. However, his refusal to relinquish his patents to the automobile industry caused problems in marketing. American Henry Phillips patented another screw known as the Phillips screw—a deep socket cruciform slot (popularly known as a “crosshead”). A trial on the 1936 Cadillac made the Phillips screw (and screwdriver) became the most popular screw in the world. It also had an advantage because conventional slotted screwdrivers could also be used on them. By 1940, 85-percent of screw manufacturers were using Phillips’ design, and variations on the tool exist today.

Let’s face it—without the screw and screwdriver, most of today’s gadgets wouldn’t be as durable as they are (or might not even exist to begin with). While the two have a symbiotic relationship, their evolution took somewhat different paths. But having them in handy can help you take care of your gadgets wherever you go.

Also published in GADGETS MAGAZINE February 2016 issue

Words by Jose Alvarez