The History of the Phillips Head Screwdriver

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For hundreds of years, the flathead screwdriver and slotted screw worked well for most everyday jobs. Mass production of autos and other items in the early part of the 20th century, however, created a new need for screwdrivers to fit quickly and accurately into the head of a screw.

An Inventor Meets an Engineer

  • In 1933, Oregonian J.P. Thompson invented a "cruciform-recessed screw," according to the Phillips Screw Company, but found no takers when he approached various screw manufacturers with his new-fangled screw proposal. His invention languished until he met an engineer named Henry Phillips, who liked the idea and eventually bought the patent rights for Thompson's design.

Phillips Sees Potential

  • Phillips recognized the advantages of the new screw head's recessed star or cross shape. The screwdriver fitted into the screw head more quickly than what it took for the precise centering required for a flathead screwdriver and a slotted screw. The new screwdriver also allowed for more torque--force while twisting--with less effort, according to American Heritage.

They Said It Couldn't Be Done

  • Despite claims from screw manufacturers that a screw head couldn't withstand the manufacturing process of punching it with its distinctive recessed shape, Phillips persisted in pedaling Thompson's idea. Phillips took out several patents on the new screw by 1936 and, in time, made several modifications to Thompson's original plans, patenting those ideas as well. Eugene Clark of American Screw agreed to manufacture the new Phillips screws, and by 1940 "almost the entire automotive industry had shifted to using" the new Phillips drive system, according to the Phillips Screw Company.

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