Why We Have Different Types of Screws

iStock/teerawut111
iStock/teerawut111

If you've ever mistakenly grabbed the Phillips head screwdriver when you needed a flat head, you've probably asked yourself why there are different types of screws. Let's start at the beginning.

The screwdriver, originally called a screwturner or turnscrew, entered the world inconspicuously and kept a very low profile until its 300th birthday. Historians believe it was invented in Germany, but aren't sure exactly when. The Medieval Housebook of Wolfegg Castle, the oldest known written reference to the tool, has a hazy publishing date somewhere between 1475 and 1490. Considering the invention likely predates the book by at least a few years, the mid to late 15th century is about as exact a birthday as it gets. For about 300 years, the persistent presence of screws is the only solid evidence that screwdrivers even existed. Then, suddenly, documentation of screwdrivers exploded across Europe, particularly in France.

Early screwdrivers had pear-shaped handles and were made for slotted screws. Metal screws as we know them today have been in use since at least the 15th century for cabinetry work and to secure plates on jousting armor. Before that, wooden screws were used in wine and olive oil presses as far back as the 1st - 3rd century BC (how they turned them for so long without a screwdriver, I haven’t been able to figure out).

These early metal screws were prohibitively expensive. It wasn’t until several advances in screw making – among them, Jesse Ramsden and Henry Maudslay's screw-cutting lathes and David Wilkinson’s and Job and William Wyatt’s mass production of screws on assembly line-like systems – occurred around the beginning of the First Industrial Revolution that the screw became easy enough to produce to become popular and widespread. This increase in popularity, of course, led to the refinement and diversification of the screwdriver. The tool took on many different shapes and sizes, though for a long time every version was still for flat slotted screws, which were the only type around.

Better Heads

This changed in 1908, when Canadian P.L. Robertson patented the “first recess-drive type fastener practical for production usage,” a recessed square-drive screw that bears his name. Robertson screws became a standard in Canada and gained a buzz in the U.S. when the Ford Motor Company, one of Robertson's first customers, used over seven hundred of them on each Model T. The square-drive head on Robertson screws had an advantage over slot heads because the driver was relatively easy to get situated on the head and stayed put during installation once it was there. A screw like Robertson’s became crucial as American manufacturers moved increasingly toward mass production methods. The time it took to align the driver with the slot, multiplied across thousands of workers in a factory and across hundreds, if not thousands, of screws per worker per day, became a significant loss of time and money. Additionally, the automated screwdrivers used on assembly lines often slipped out of the screws’ slots and into whatever component was being assembled or stripped the screw once it was driven all the way. [Image credit: Saforrest]

The American automobile industry was especially in need of a screws screw that could stand up to the torque of their automated drivers and be fitted and tightened quickly, but a bad break in Robertson’s past doomed him just when his invention was needed most. Dealing with dishonest parties while licensing his screw in England, Robertson wound up losing the rights to his invention and had to spend a small fortune to buy them back. When Ford, wanting to protect his assembly advantage (the screws saved his workers two hours of assembly time per vehicle), asked for a licensing agreement from Robertson so that he could manufacture and control the distribution of the screws, Robertson turned him down and he refused to allow anyone to make the screws under license. After their run on the Model T, Ford had to limit the use of the screws to his Canadian division and the widespread adoption of the Robertson screw in the U.S. fizzled and failed.

Enter Portland, Oregon-based businessman Henry F. Phillips and the patent for a screw with a deep X-shaped slot, which he had purchased from friend and inventor J.P. Thompson. Phillips refined the design of the fastener, today known as a Phillips screw, for automated screwdrivers. The X-shape of the slot and pointed tip of the Phillips head screwdriver made the driver self-centering and unlikely to slip out when it wasn’t supposed to. The recessed slot was shallow enough, though, that the driver did pop out when the screw was fully tightened, which prevented over-torquing and damage to the screw, the driver and the product being assembled.

The American Screw Company began mass-producing Phillips’ design. A successful trial on the 1936 Cadillac helped it proliferate through the U.S. auto industry. By 1940, 85% of the screw manufacturing companies in the U.S. had a license to produce the Phillips screw design. Usage spread from the auto manufacturers as the Phillips drive system was used during the Second World War on many wartime products and vehicles. Though originally meant for automated, industrial applications, Phillips screws and handheld screwdrivers found their way into the toolboxes of handy men and women across the country by the turn middle of the century. [Image credit: U.S Patent and Trademark Office.]

Other Ways the World Turns

Most anyone who’s had to fix anything at home or put together an IKEA couch has heard of slotted and Phillips screws and maybe even hex sockets. The world of screws is vast, though, and plenty of other types of screw heads and drives exist, like the Mortorq, the Pozidriv and the Bristol. You can take a crash course in the different types of screws here, and if you want a more in-depth history of screws and drivers, check out Witold Rybczynski’s One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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22 Creepy Cryptids From Around the World

Belgian painter Pieter Dirkx's interpretation of the Mongolian death worm.
Belgian painter Pieter Dirkx's interpretation of the Mongolian death worm.

According to Merriam-Webster, a cryptid is an animal "that has been claimed to exist but never proven to exist." But as Bigfoot believers and Loch Ness Monster enthusiasts are often quick to point out, it’s pretty difficult to prove that something doesn’t exist. Plus, it’s much more fun to indulge in the idea that giant sea monsters and hairy humanoids are roaming the uncharted corners of the planet.

On this episode of The List Show, Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy is taking viewers across time and space to unearth legends about lesser-known monsters that, again, haven’t been proven to not exist. Take the Mongolian death worm, a lamprey-like nightmare that supposedly lives in the Gobi Desert and radiates a poison so strong that you could die just by standing near it. If you’re an ill-behaved child or a Catholic who scarfs down steak every Friday during Lent, watch out for the Rougarou, a Louisiana-based werewolf that sniffs out those two demographics.

Learn about more fearsome, fascinating cryptids of all kinds in the video below, and subscribe to the Mental Floss YouTube channel for future episodes of The List Show.