by: Geoff Ficke

The Simple, Ubiquitous Modern Screw Created Fortunes and Enabled Mass Production to Flourish

Every human seems to have screws lying around our homes and offices. They tend to accumulate like dust particles. Open a drawer or a utility box and there will be a jumble of screws of different types and sizes littered among other assorted pieces of flotsam and junk that we collect and never seem to lose. Occasionally we go looking for a screw for a unique application or task and usually, we will find just the unit to complete the chore.

We don’t think much about screws. I can’t remember the last time I actually bought a screw, if ever. They come attached or included in many of the assembled products we purchase. We know what screws do and their importance in holding things together; but we don’t reflect much on their provenance. They are innocuous, inanimate objects in our lives for the most part.

And yet, fortunes have been made off of the simple screw. Screws were first used in building trades in the 15th century in France and Germany. They became crucial in enabling architects to build on a grander scale. However, the production of screws was difficult, cumbersome and not standardized. The industrial revolution, which began to explode internationally in the middle of the 19th century, required that the screws become a mass production staple.

The first known pioneer to entrepreneurially create a fortune from enhancing the screw was P.L. Robertson. Mr. Robertson was a Canadian who sold mechanical products in Ontario is the late 19th century. He recognized that the screws available at the time were difficult to work with. His concept was to place a square divot in the head of the screw. This became the famous “square socket” screw. The head of the screw driver was refitted with a square nib and locked firmly onto the head of the Robertson screw. Robertson was a prolific patent filer, and he was ardent in protecting his invention. Soon the “square socket” was in wide use in industry and the trades.

The SPS Company (Standard Press Steel) in the early part of the 20th century wanted to avoid paying royalties to P.L. Robertson and Co. SPS invented the UNBRAKO line of screws and implements. Today we know these products as Allen Wrenches and hex-head screws. Try to imagine any DIY project, or IKEA furniture assembly, without using the Allen Wrench to lock the parts together.

Henry Phillips was an Oregonian and inveterate tinkerer. He was aware that the automobile industry was desperate to accelerate the assembly process. Henry Ford had created the automated factory line. Parts and tools were needed to assist in improving efficiencies in mass production.

One of the problems that engineers faced was that screws were difficult to self-center. Henry Phillips attacked the problem and created one of the most useful, famous and omnipresent product innovations in history; the Phillips Head Screw. His first commercial success with the Phillips Head Screw was a sale to Cadillac for use in the 1934 models.

Imagine a hardware store anywhere in the world that did not stock an array of screws and screw drivers.

The Allen Wrench-Hex Head screws, the Phillips screw and the square socket were simple riffs on a standard product already in wide use. None of these inventors created an “alpha” product. They simply improved on an existing design(s). This is the great opportunity that has created so much wealth, so many enduring companies and improved so many lives. It is also a path available every day to creators, inventors and entrepreneurs seeking to add value to commerce. It is not necessary to create the wheel. Just create a new use or benefit for the wheel and many rewards will open to you.

Author's Bio: 

Geoff Ficke has been a serial entrepreneur for almost 50 years. As a small boy, earning his spending money doing odd jobs in the neighborhood, he learned the value of selling himself, offering service and value for money.

After putting himself through the University of Kentucky (B.A. Broadcast Journalism, 1969) and serving in the United States Marine Corp, Mr. Ficke commenced a career in the cosmetic industry. After rising to National Sales Manager for Vidal Sassoon Hair Care at age 28, he then launched a number of ventures, including Rubigo Cosmetics, Parfums Pierre Wulff Paris, Le Bain Couture and Fashion Fragrance.

Geoff Ficke and his consulting firm, Duquesa Marketing, Inc. ( has assisted businesses large and small, domestic and international, entrepreneurs, inventors and students in new product development, capital formation, licensing, marketing, sales and business plans and successful implementation of his customized strategies. He is a Senior Fellow at the Page Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, Business School, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.