The Men Behind the Tools

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You may not realize it, but you've got quite a few proper names in your toolbox or hanging above your workbench. Let's take a look at a few of the names that have helped make drilling, screwing, cleaning, and tightening a bit easier for all of us.

Ettore squeegees

The squeegee takes its name from the sound it makes as it cleans a window, and no brand name is as closely linked to clean windows as Ettore. It's fitting, then, that Italian immigrant and window cleaner Ettore Steccone perfected the modern single-blade squeegee in 1936 with a model he called "the New Deal."

Steccone's improved design made it easier for window washers to replace worn-out blades while they were dangling high on buildings' facades, but he had to resort to some trickery to get stores to stock the New Deal. When Steccone was still operating his business out of his garage, he tried to convince the New York window cleaning supply giant J. Racenstein Company to buy an order of his squeegees. They declined. Undeterred, Steccone bet the owner that within a month the company would place an order for his squeegees. The stakes? Only the finest hat in New York City.

Here's where the trickery comes in. Steccone then went around town and gave his window-washing colleagues free squeegees to try for a day. When they came back to him with rave reviews and asked where they could buy more, Steccone directed them to the J. Racenstein Company. Sure enough, Racenstein placed an order for Steccone's wares within a month. The luxurious Borsalino hat that Racenstein bought Steccone still sits in the Ettore Products Company's offices as an oddly dapper trophy.

Black & Decker

In 1910, S. Duncan Black (far left) and Alonzo G. Decker pooled $1,200 to open a machine shop in Baltimore. At first they built machines to make bottle caps and dip candy, but in 1916 they hit upon an interesting idea: What if they made a portable drill? The pair worked to obtain a patent for a drill with a pistol grip and a trigger, and the drill was suddenly a lot handier than it had been. Within three years, the Black & Decker was racking up over $1 million in annual sales.

Stanley

Although it merged with Black & Decker earlier this year, the Stanley Works' name lives on in the new corporate name Stanley Black & Decker. The company got its start in New Britain, CT in 1843 when Frederick Trent Stanley opened a shop to make door bolts and hinges from wrought iron. In 1857, his cousin Henry Stanley started a hardware company of his own, the Stanley Rule and Level Company. In 1920, the two companies finally merged to become the Stanley Works.

Allen wrenches

Connecticut is a surprisingly fertile location for hardware designs. The familiar hex wrench takes its common name from the Allen Manufacturing Company of Hartford, which introduced a popular line of hex keys in 1943.

DeWalt

Although DeWalt is now a subsidiary of Stanley Black & Decker, it traces its roots all the way back to 1922. That's when farm superintendent Raymond DeWalt ran into a problem. He needed more men to help him cut lumber to specific lengths, but his bosses wouldn't shell out any extra cash for payroll. DeWalt addressed the problem by hooking a saw to a moving yoke and an arm, which allowed one man to cut wood far more efficiently. Yes, DeWalt invented the radial arm saw, which made cutting lumber easier than the old table saws and handsaws that people had been using. DeWalt formed the DeWalt Products Company in 1924 and introduced the "Wonder-Worker" (shown at left), an electric woodworking machine that included his radial arm saw design.

Phillips head screw

Yes, there's actually a Mr. Phillips. In the early 1930s, assembly lines were facing a conundrum. Powered mechanized screwdrivers could make production far more efficient, but they were incredibly irritating to use with the traditional flat-head screws. As soon as the tip of the screwdriver would slip into the slot, it would pop back out again.

Henry F. Phillips of Portland, OR solved all of that in 1934. His crosshead screw centered itself, and once a screwdriver was seated in the slot, it wasn't coming out. Phillips began licensing his screws to industrial plants, and they were an immediate hit. By 1937, General Motors had begun using Phillips head screws, and now you can find Phillips' name in most any toolbox.

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September 28, 2010 - 5:35am
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