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Phillips Screws

August 20, 2002

A public radio commentary

A few days ago I struggled with a Phillips Screw. As many homeowners know, they are difficult to remove because the screwdriver tip can spin around in the screw head. You might wonder how such a useless thing got into our homes. The answer is this: They were never supposed to be there.

In 1936 Henry F. Phillips invented, as the title of his patent proclaims, a "Means for uniting a screw with a driver." The essence of Phillips invention is this: Get the screwdriver tip on the screw head, and the driver centers itself neatly on the screw. This means, of course, that the tip also easily pops out of the screw, something many homeowners have experienced. Phillips, though, never intended this for home use - he invented the screw for the auto industry. Phillips knew that car makers needed a screw that could be quickly met by an automatic screw driver, one where the screw driver centered quickly and easily. An ordinary slotted screw and screwdriver were too difficult to line up quickly for mass production.

But in marketing his screen Phillips faced the problem that the nation's biggest screw makers weren't interested. One of the largest manufacturers wrote him: "The manufacture and marketing of these articles don't promise sufficient commercial success to warrant interesting ourselves further."

It took Phillips three years, but he finally persuaded a manufacturer, the American Screw Company, to make the screws. So controversial were they, though, that the engineers there refused to work on them until the company's president threatened to fire everyone. They took a dim view of spending half a million dollars to develop a manufacturing processes for this new, untested screw. Yet, so important was this new screw to the president that he had the first screws off the assembly line plated in gold and silver, and made into a necklace for his wife and a set of cuff links for himself. American Screw then sold the Phillips screws to General Motors, who used them on the 1936 Cadillac. After that they were rapidly adopted: By 1940 nearly every American automaker had switched to Phillips screws. The dominance of the Phillips screw was settled in the 1940s when World War II broke out. Detroit need to produced jeeps and other vehicles quickly, and they turned to the Phillips screw to increase the efficiency of their production line.

In fact, the Phillips screw became so popular that other manufacturers made unlicensed knock offs. The Phillips company didn't press their patent rights, so in 1949 Phillips was stripped of his patent. No one knows exactly what happened to Phillips after this -- he died in 1958 having left the company, and it isn't clear if he died a pauper or a rich man. But his screw has done pretty well. From something that "didn't show much commercial promise" it has become the most manufactured screw in the world -- even going into space: Phillips screws held the space shuttle together.

Copyright 2002 William S. Hammack Enterprises