Anyone who’s carried a multi-tool knows what a lifesaver the versatile gadgets can be in a pinch. What you might not know is that if not for a long vacation, an unreliable car, an understanding wife, and a determined inventor, the granddaddy of them all, the Leatherman Pocket Survival Tool, would never have been created.
1. THE INVENTOR’S ACTUAL NAME IS LEATHERMAN.
The multi-tools have an appropriately rugged name, but it didn’t require a focus group to perfect. Tim Leatherman was born with the ideal name for an outdoor gadget. Leatherman, an Oregon native who earned a degree in mechanical engineering at Oregon State University, invented the tool that now bears his name.
2. A TRIP THROUGH EUROPE INSPIRED THE TOOL’S INVENTION.
In 1975, Tim Leatherman and his wife, Chau, traveled to Europe for a nine-month tour of the continent. To get around on the vacation, the Leathermans dropped $300 on a used Fiat. That’s when Tim Leatherman’s problems started. He had brought a pocketknife along for the journey, but it lacked the tools he needed to keep the unreliable car on the road. As he later explained, “I was carrying an old Boy Scout-type knife and used it for everything from slicing bread to making adjustments to the car. But I kept wishing I had a pair of pliers!" Later in the trip, Leatherman began design sketches for the tool he really needed: A knife that also featured a pair of pliers. He even created “prototype” cutouts from cardboard.
3. CHAU LEATHERMAN PLAYED A CRITICAL ROLE IN BRINGING THE TOOL TO LIFE.
In 2007, Tim told Fortune Small Business that when the Leathermans made it back to Oregon, he asked Chau if he could build a tool for himself, a task he reckoned would take a month. She agreed and got a job to keep the couple afloat. As it turned out, that estimate turned out to be a bit optimistic. There were some hurdles, namely that he didn’t actually know how to build a metal tool: “My brother-in-law was a machinist, and what he didn't teach me about metalworking, I had to figure out myself," Tim said. "My month turned into three years.”
4. CREATING THE TOOL WAS JUST THE FIRST CHALLENGE.
Now that the Leatherman and similar multi-tools are ubiquitous, it’s easy to forget what a revolutionary idea they were in the late 1970s. Even though Tim Leatherman had eventually set out to create a tool for his personal use, he realized there could be a market for his invention. Or so he thought. When he tried peddling the patent for his “Mr. Crunch” prototype to established companies, he ran into his next hurdle. Knife companies thought Leatherman’s creation was a tool, and knife companies didn’t sell tools. Tool companies, meanwhile, thought it was a gadget, which they didn’t market, either. Leatherman never gave up, but eventually he had to get a day job as a salesman of welding equipment to pay the bills while he kept trying to find a taker.
5. EVENTUALLY, LEATHERMAN HAD TO STRIKE OUT ON HIS OWN.
After four more years of not finding any takers, Leatherman teamed up with his college buddy Steve Berliner to start their own business to make and market the tool. Again, things looked rocky at first—as the partners reminisced in a video released to celebrate the company’s 30th anniversary in 2013, Leatherman and Berliner thought they would need a wholesale order of at least 2000 tools to start production. Again, they found no takers, but eventually, outfitter Cabela’s put in an order for 500 of Leatherman’s tools. The partners decided that would have to do, and they went into production on the original Leatherman Pocket Survival Tool a full eight years after Tim began working on the prototype. Early wholesale customers kept selling out, and Berliner and Leatherman were on their way to building their own new category of tools.
6. BERLINER SUGGESTED THE NAME LEATHERMAN FOR THE COMPANY.
Tim Leatherman didn’t name the company and the tool after himself for the sake of his ego. According to the company, the Leatherman name was actually Berliner’s idea. Berliner’s logic: “[H]e knew Tim would make sure every tool was high-quality if it had his name on it.”
7. TIM LEATHERMAN EXTENDED THE TOOL’S ORIGINAL WARRANTY.
When the first Leatherman Pocket Survival Tools shipped in 1983, they came backed with a 25-year warranty. In 2008, that first batch of warranties expired, but Newhouse News Service reported, “[T]here’s no intention of turning away any longtime customer’s warranty claim, no matter how long expired.” Modern Leatherman tools still come with this 25-year warranty that covers pretty much everything except theft, loss, abuse, and “unreasonable use.” As the company puts it, “Our warranty is simple. You broke it, we'll fix it. No questions, no hassles, no wasting your time.”
8. EMERGENCY MEDICAL PERSONNEL HAVE THEIR OWN MODEL.
The company now makes a wide range of multi-tools, pocket tools, pocketknives, and other products. One of the most interesting of these line extensions is the Raptor, a model designed for paramedics and other medical professionals. It looks like a giant pair of scissors, but it includes medical shears, a strap cutter, a ring cutter, an oxygen tank wrench, and even a hard-pointed glass breaker for gaining access to patients in wrecked cars.
9. THE COMPANY’S FANS ARE EXTREMELY DEVOTED.
A Leatherman multi-tool can be a godsend in a sticky situation, so it’s not surprising that users who have been bailed out by their tools become evangelists for the brand. Leatherman maintains a section of its website called “Tool Tales” that allows readers to submit their own stories of using their Leatherman to escape dire straits. The section is searchable by model name, and it’s worth checking out for headlines like “Cactus in the Face,” “Diamonds and Cat Barf,” and “Cat Fish Revenge.”
10. ONE WHALE OF A TOOL TALE STANDS ABOVE THEM ALL.
In an interview Tim Leatherman gave Knight Ridder for the company’s 20th anniversary in 2003, he shared a favorite story of one of his creations in action. A boater in Alaska awoke from a nap to find that a humpback whale had gotten its tail fluke wrapped in the boat’s anchor line. With the whale’s thrashing threatening to destroy the boat, the boater calmly whipped out his Leatherman and used its knife to saw through the line, freeing the whale and saving the boat.
11. LEATHERMAN HAS GOTTEN IN ON THE WEARABLE CRAZE.
Wearable gadgets are all the rage, and Leatherman figured out a clever no-batteries-required take on the trend. The Leatherman Tread looks a bit like a metal watch bracelet, but once the wearer takes it off, each link is loaded with a tool like a screwdriver, hex drivers, a bottle opener, a pick to remove your SIM card from your phone, and more. At $165, the Tread isn’t cheap, but as the demonstration video shows, it’s a useful conversation piece.