The Phillips head screw and screwdriver were not invented by their namesake
John P. Thompson sold his patent to Henry F. Phillips in 1935. The sale price has apparently never been reported.
BY REID CREAGER
On Jan. 5, 1920, the Boston Red Sox sold the contract of 24-year-old pitcher/outfielder Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees for $100,000.
Given that this became perhaps the most noteworthy and one-sided transaction in baseball history, one could uneloquently say the Red Sox got screwed.
Fifteen years later, a transaction for a screw design patent between two Portlanders—businessman/engineer Henry F. Phillips and inventor John P. Thompson—eventually became just as lopsided, if not more.
In 1932, Thompson applied for the patent rights on a “Screw” (U.S. Patent No. 1,908,080) with a “cruciform groove” and a matching “Screw driver” (U.S. Patent No. 1,908,081). He is still listed as the inventor on both applications, both of which were granted the following year.
But Thompson’s attempts to sell his design to screw manufacturers yielded frustrating results.
He couldn’t understand why: After all, with mass, automated production of cars ramping up a decade earlier, a screwdriver that slipped out of a one-slot screw could slow production or even damage the screw head and force its removal. Thompson’s cross design allowed for centering of the screwdriver and more uniform torque, reducing the chances for delays and damage to the screw.
Manufacturers apparently balked because they believed the punch that would create the cross imprint or recess would destroy the screw head.
So Thompson sold the patent to Phillips in 1935—willingly, by all indications. The sale price has never been reported.
Phillips, who had formed the Phillips Screw Co. the year before, refined Thompson’s crosshead design for easier manufacturing.
On July 7, 1936, he was granted three patents:
- “Screw,” U.S. Patent No. 2,046,343;
- “Means for Uniting a Screw With a Driver,” U.S. Patent No. 2,046,837; and
- “Screwdriver,” U.S. Patent No. 2,046,840.
The key to all three patents was to engineer a star-shaped screw that would eliminate the punch concerns manufacturers had about Thompson’s invention. In the “Screw” patent, Phillips wrote:
“The principal object of this invention is to provide a tool-receiving recess which may be formed in the head of a crew by a simple punching operation wherein the proper and equal displacement of the metal during such punching operation is an important factor, and wherein, also, the recess in its final form will embody a plurality of relatively wide and flat-bottomed grooves.”
Phillips then called on manufacturers in hopes of succeeding where Thompson had failed. His optimism was rewarded when American Screw Co., America’s biggest screw manufacturer, showed interest.
Not everyone in the company was sold on this new screw design. President Eugene Clark rebuffed his engineers by saying, according to many reports, that “I finally told my head men that I would put on pension all who insisted it could not be done. After that, an efficient method was evolved to manufacture the fasteners and now we have licensed all other major companies to use it.”
With the deal finally tightened, the Phillips head screw soon revolutionized assembly lines and American life in general. It became available to consumers in 1936.
General Motors began using the Phillips system in its 1937 Cadillacs; by one report, 85 percent of screw manufacturing companies had a license to produce the Phillips screw recess design by 1940.
The Phillips was now used by virtually the entire automobile industry, as well as in railroads and aviation. It was a staple on products and vehicles during World War II and remains ubiquitous today.
An anonymous death
Phillips did not live much longer to enjoy the success of his namesake product. He retired in 1945 due to poor health and died in 1958.
Much less is known about Thompson.
Oregonencyclopedia.org says Census records indicate he worked as a bank cashier and in real estate before moving to Oregon. A 1939 Sunday Oregonian article said he was an auto mechanic when he invented the screw. He died in 1940, just five years after his patent sale to Phillips.
(By the way, Thompson’s cross-shaped design wasn’t the first to fail to gain universal acceptance. About 60 years earlier, English inventor John Frearson patented a screw with a “cruciform orifice” that never gained traction.)
The patent for the iconic cross-shaped screw head expired in 1966, just 31 years after Henry F. Phillips’ historic purchase and innovation made it one of the smartest deals of the 20th century.
U.S. Patent No. 2,046,837, “Means for Uniting a Screw With a Driver,” reads with this classification: Screwdrivers characterised by material or shape of the tool bit characterised by cross-section with cross- or star-shaped cross-section. The inventor is Henry F. Phillips.