Tools, Not Cocktails: A Brief History of the Screwdriver

Everybody knows the good ol’ screwdriver. It’s one of the most useful tools in any toolbox, and almost everyone, no matter how mechanically inclined or not, has at least one somewhere in the house. The screwdriver is one of those devices that is so simple, and has been around so long, that it seems like it’s always been a thing—not really invented so much as it has just existed since the dawn of civilization. Where, then, did the noble screwdriver come from?

Screwin’ Around Medieval-Style

The first historical evidence of humans using screwdrivers comes from Medieval Europe, toward the tail end of the 15th century CE. The long shared border between Germany and France makes it difficult to say for sure in which of the two countries the tool was invented. The earliest written evidence is found in the Hausbuch (“housebook”) of Wolfegg Castle, a manuscript written betwixt 1475 and 1490. In Germany, the tool was known as the Schraubendrehe (“screwturner”); in France, tournevis (“turnscrew”); English speakers, naturally, ignored these two perfectly reasonable (and more aurally pleasing) translations and went with screwdriver, for some reason.

These old-timiest of old-timey screwdrivers had pear-shaped wooden handles and were, perhaps unsurprisingly, made to fit slotted screws—what are now often called flathead screws, which were the only type of screws in existence at the time. However, very little actual evidence of screwdrivers themselves from this period exists; we only know that screwdrivers were used for the next three centuries because screws from throughout this period have been found.

Advancements in Screwdriving

One key early use of screwdrivers was in the assembly of firearms, which had only recently become a thing. In early guns, a jaw mechanism was used to hold the pyrites that ignited when struck to fire a bullet. These jaws needed to be replaced frequently, and were held in place by screws. This lead to a number of refinements in screwdriver design, though all screws remained single-slotted until the late 19th century.

It was not until the Industrial Revolution when Job “Big Job” Wyatt and his brother William “Big Willie Style” Wyatt developed a way to quickly, easily, and inexpensively produce screws that the fasteners, and therefore screwdrivers, came into popular, widespread use. With this increase in popularity came considerable refinement and diversification.

Big Pete vs. Big Hank

P.L. “Big Pete” Robertson, a Canadian inventor, developed the first commercially successful socket-head screws and, by necessity, screwdrivers, in 1908. Socket-head screws remain popular today, though they would likely be even more popular had Robertson been able to successfully market them to the then-nascent (and rapidly growing) automotive industry.

Instead, automakers struck a deal with the American Screw Company (who had themselves recently struck a deal with Henry F. “Big Hank” Phillips of Portland, Oregon, inventor of the Phillips-head screw, to mass-produce his new and improved screw), and in 1936, the Phillips screw became the standard throughout the American auto industry. Today, the Phillips-head is the most popular screw type in the world.

Photo credit: Noel C. Hankamer via / CC BY-NC-SA