Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Tools Named After Inventors

Mattock/axe combo, COLLINS AXE brand
I had reason recently to use my trusty Collins Axe axe/mattock to break ground for daylily plantings along the Assabet River Rail Trail. This is a handsome tool, what with a 36-inch-long fiberglass handle in black and yellow, capped by a five-pound, high carbon steel head. Perfect for breaking up tough turf and chopping through small roots. There is also a five-pound version with a pick/mattock head. I was disappointed to learn that “Collins Axe” was not the name of this specific tool, but rather, a brand name for many handtools.

For those not tool-savvy, an axe has a sharp blade parallel to the handle. Axes can be single- or double-headed. An adze is single-headed, with a sharp blade perpendicular to the handle. Adzes are carpenters’ tools, for shaping wood. A mattock has dull blades, suitable for breaking through turf and roots. A double-headed mattock can have blades parallel and perpendicular (axe and adze) or be a pick and mattock combination. For both of these, the mattock is the larger blade.  A “Pulaski” is a forest firefighter’s version of a double-headed tool, with a sharp axe blade and a smaller adze blade.  

Samuel Watkinson Collins founded the Collins Company with his brother and their cousin in 1826. They started with making axes – a tool that every pioneer, logger, and builder needed at that time. By 1859, Collins employed 350 people and produced 2,000 tools daily, having added picks, sledge-hammers, sugarcane cutting knives, machetes and more. At one time, the company produced 80 percent of the world’s machetes. Collins died in 1871. The company of his name continued at the same site until 1966, sold, moved, moved again. “Collins Axe” is now a brand for Truper, a Mexico-headquartered international manufacturer of tools, including shovels and wheelbarrows.

The Allen wrench, fitting snugly into the indentation on a screw or bolt, was the trademarked invention of William G. Allen in 1910. He also had a U.S, patent awarded to a method of manufacturing the screwhead. Much like Collins, this was originally a Connecticut company named after the founder. He moved on, the company was sold/acquired several times, and is now a brand name, with manufacture in Asia. Headless screws were promoted as a safety feature in factories because a when the tops of the screws were flush with moving machine parts those were much less likely to catch the clothing of workers and pull them into injurious contact.

As to why the Allen screwhead has a six-sided indentation, Peter Robertson of Ontario, Canada, had earlier patented and put into production a means of making a screw head with a square indentation circa 1909, after having badly cut his hand on a “flat-blade” screwdriver. Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company found this design so time-saving that he proposed paying for an exclusive license. Robertson refused. Allen went six-sided to avoid infringing the Robertson patents.    

Next, we turn our attention to the Phillips screwdriver. John P. Thompson invented and patented a cross-headed screw and screwdriver combination, the major improvement over the flat-blade type that it would not slip out to one side or the other of the screwhead. After failing to interest manufacturers, Thompson sold his self-centering design to Henry Frank Phillips. Phillips improved the manufacturing process of the screwhead, which was technically much more difficult than machining the screwdriver. One of the first customers for a non-exclusive license was General Motors. By 1940, 85 percent of U.S. screw manufacturers had a license for the design. Robertson’s desire to have a patent-protected monopoly had cost him the major market share of screws and drivers to the Allen and Phillips designs.

Jules Leotard (1838-70) was
a French acrobat who developed
tight-fitting clothes
There is worldwide agreement that screws and bolts tighten when turned to the right, i.e., clockwise, and loosen when turned to the left. There are rare instances where left-threading is needed. For bicycle pedals, if there were right-threading on the left pedal, the friction of the pedal while it revolves around the shaft would gradually loosen the pedal. For this reason, right pedals are right-threaded to tighten and left pedals are left-threaded.

Wikipedia has a long list of objects named after their inventors. A selection: Bloomers, Bowie knife, Bunsen burner, Derrick, Diesel engine, Ferris wheel, Franklin stove, Gattling gun, Graham crackers, Jacuzzi, Leotard, Macadam (asphalt), Mason Jar, Murphy bed, Otis elevator, Pilates, Pulaski axe/adze, Tupperware, Yale lock, Zamboni and Zeppelin.

Inventions are also named after places: Adirondack chair, Bikini bathing suit, Damascus steel swords, Duffel bag, Denver Boot, Jersey barrier, Panama hat, Rugby football, and so on.


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