History of the Screwdriver
The earliest documented screwdrivers were used in Europe in the late Middle Ages. They were probably invented in the late 15th century, either in Germany or France. The tool's original names in German and French were Schraubendreher (screwturner) and tournevis (turnscrew), respectively. The first documentation of the tool is in the medieval Housebook of Wolfegg Castle, a manuscript written sometime between 1475 and 1490. These earliest screwdrivers had pear-shaped handles and were made for slotted screws (diversification of the many types of screwdrivers did not emerge until the Gilded Age). The screwdriver remained inconspicuous, however, as evidence of its existence throughout the next 300 years is based primarily on the presence of screws.
Screws were used in the 15th century to construct screw-cutting lathes, for securing breastplates, backplates, and helmets on medieval jousting armor—and eventually for multiple parts of the emerging firearms, particularly the matchlock. Screws, hence screwdrivers, were not used in full combat armor, most likely to give the wearer freedom of movement.[further explanation needed]
The jaws that hold the pyrites inside medieval guns were secured with screws, and the need to constantly replace the pyrites resulted in considerable refinement of the screwdriver. The tool is more documented in France, and took on many shapes and sizes, though all for slotted screws. There were large, heavy-duty screwdrivers for building and repairing large machines, and smaller screwdrivers for refined cabinet work.
The screwdriver depended entirely on the screw, and it took several advances to make the screw easy enough to produce to become popular and widespread. The most popular door hinge at the time was the butt-hinge, but it was considered a luxury. The butt-hinge was handmade, and its constant motion required the security of a screw.
Screws were very hard to produce before the First Industrial Revolution, requiring manufacture of a conical helix. The brothers Job and William Wyatt found a way to produce a screw on a novel machine that first cut the slotted head, and then cut the helix. Though their business ultimately failed, their contribution to low-cost manufacturing of the screw ultimately led to a vast increase in the screw and the screwdriver's popularity. The increase in popularity gradually led to refinement and eventually diversification of the screwdriver. Refinement of the precision of screws also significantly contributed to the boom in production, mostly by increasing its efficiency and standardizing sizes, important precursors to industrial manufacture.
Canadian P.L. Robertson, though he was not the first person to patent the idea of socket-head screws, was the first to successfully commercialize them, starting in 1908. Socket screws rapidly grew in popularity, and are still a favorite of mechanics today for their resistance to wear and tear, compatibility with hex keys, and ability to stop a power tool when set. Though immensely popular, Robertson had trouble marketing his invention to the newly booming auto industry, for he was unwilling to relinquish his patents.
Meanwhile, in Portland, Oregon, Henry F. Phillips patented his own invention, an improved version of a deep socket with a cruciformslot, today known as the Phillips Screw. Phillips offered his screw to the American Screw Company, and after a successful trial on the 1936 Cadillac, it quickly swept through the American auto industry. With the Industrial Revival at the end of the Great Depression and the upheaval of World War II, the Phillips screw quickly became, and remains, the most popular screw in the world. A main attraction for the screw was that conventional slotted screwdrivers could also be used on them, which was not possible with the Robertson Screw.
Gunsmiths still call a screwdriver a turnscrew, under which name it is an important part of a set of pistols. The name was common in earlier centuries, used by cabinetmakers, shipwrights, and perhaps other trades. The cabinetmaker's screwdriver is one of the longest-established handle forms, somewhat oval or ellipsoid in cross section. This is variously attributed to improving grip or preventing the tool rolling off the bench. The shape has been popular for a couple of hundred years. It is usually associated with a plain head for slotted screws, but has been used with many head forms. Modern plastic screwdrivers use a handle with a roughly hexagonal cross section to achieve these same two goals, a far cry from the pear-shaped handle of the original 15th-century screwdriver.
2 Rybczynski 2000, pp. 90–94.
3 Library and Archives Canada, Collections Canada website; from Ken Lamb (1998), P.L., inventor of the Robertson screw, Milton Historical Society. ISBN 0969562969.; original illustration Peter L. Robertson, 1909 - Collections Canada
5 en:User:Cburnett - Own work. Canon Digital Rebel with a 100mm macro lens.