How’s this for a piece of cool technology?
How many of us have cursed the traditional flathead screwdriver- usually that nanosecond you feel it slip in the groove and you know you’re about to suffer a disgustingly, ugly hand wound. Or cursed the Philips screw because the little star shape became damaged when the driver slipped. There have been many attempts at improving the basic screw and my favourite is a Canadian invention – the Robertson:
Why is this a perfect example of great tech at work? The design improves on an old idea – slip a screwdriver into the snug little square head and you can get an amazing amount of power behind it. Well, plus, for people like me who are a menace around power tools of all sorts, you never run the risk of the drill winging off creating embarrassing divots along the woodwork. There is a reason I don’t do home repairs. But I’ll leave that for another tale.
Peter Lymburner Robertson is one of those underappreciated Canadian inventors who built a small empire a one small screw. Although many are familiar with the square head screw (commonly refered to as a Robertson), few associate it with the man who invented it. That’s him over at the side. Robertson was living in Hamilton, Ontario and worked as a travelling salesman for a Philadelphia tool company. He often related a tale of how and why he invented the square screw. Robertson was demonstrating a spring loaded screwdriver in the summer of 1907 (the date varies between 1906 and 1907, depending on which source you look at) when it slipped and he received a bad slice on his hand. After that, he began designing a slip-less screwdriver. Withing a year, he had a satisfactory design and filed for a patent in Canada. By 1912, he held the patent internationally.
The simplicity in the design is awe inspiring:
This invention relates to screws, the heads of which have axial driving recesses or cavities instead of transverse slots punched therein and the invention consists in a recess or cavity extending into the screw head, the outer portion of the recess or cavity being prismatic and the inner portion thereof being pyramidal, the apex of the pyramid being in the axial line of the prism and of the screw. (from patent papers)
In short, the screw slot is square and punched deep into the screw head rather than a slot running the length of the screw. What makes this screw so much better than a slotted one? Plop the screwdriver into the recessed square and it’s gripped tightly with nowhere really to slip off. You can start turning with no fear of it popping out. As well, the grip is so solid, you can put a lot of force behind each turn of the screw. The square shape also makes for a much hardier screw and more difficult to strip. As well, because the screwdriver fits so snugly into the square head, it’s possible to drill the screw with one hand, adding to it’s overall utility.
This was an important innovation, especially with industries looking to save time and money – a screw that could be inserted faster saved big dollars. It’s a bit hard to believe, but consider this, fewer slips of the screwdriver meant less damage to the item being manufactured. A win, win situation. After WW1, the Ford Motor Co initially used the Robertson on it’s Model T and A cars. By using the Robertson, Ford said his company could save an average 2 hrs assembly time on each vehicle. This presented a massive advantage in both savings and getting cars to market faster. The deal to use the Robertson fell apart when Ford wanted P.L. Robertson to sign an agreement that would allow Ford to make and hold all distribution rights for the huge US market. Robertson was adverse to siging a deal that potentially meant he would lose control over his invention. Robertson refused to turn any rights over and unfortunately, when no monopoly was forthcoming, Ford switched over to the Philips screw. Philips was more than happy to hand over the rights. In an odd twist of fate, this failed deal meant the Robertson never really took hold in the US, but it’s ubiquitous here in Canada. I doubt there are many tool boxes that don’t have a few Robertson screw drivers rolling around inside.
Archives Canada – Robertson Screw and Screwdriver
You can download the patent here: https://patents.google.com/patent/US975285A/en?q=screw,roberston&inventor=Peter+Robertson&before=19100101
Robertson Fastener website has a bit of info as well
Every time you fire up your phone, stop and offer thanks to English chemist and all around polymath, John Frederick Daniell (1790–1845). He’s the dapper fellow to the right. No, he didn’t design the first battery, he was second, but his design has been described as the first practical battery. Alessandro Volta (volt .. volta … get it?) developed the first battery.
Daniell was a typical 19th century intellectual – a busy, active mind that wasn’t constrained by one discipline – chemistry, physics, meteorological, climatology and a little bit of geology thrown in. He started his career working at a sugar works where he developed a technique for clarifying sugar. He later went on to patent his idea. I tried to find the patent, but had no luck. Anyone want to fund a trip to the UK archives? I think I could spend a lifetime there looking at patents.
Anyway, while working at the sugar plant, he attended lectures at the Great Windmill Street Anatomical School in London. It was there that his interest in chemistry was encouraged. He sat in on lectures by William Thomas Brande, chemist, author of the Manual of Chemistry and later professor at the Royal Institute. The Great Windmill had a powerful influence on Daniell’s passion for chemistry. While there, he formed a lasting friendship with both Brande and Michael Faraday – a name that should ring a bell or two with most of you.
John Frederick Daniell and Michael Faraday from Sketches of the Royal Society and Royal Society Club by Sir John Barrow
By 1830, Danielle had established a name for himself in the fields of chemistry and meteorology. His work and influential friends (Samuel Taylor Colleridge among them) helped Daniellle obtain the position of first professor of chemistry with the new King’s College London where he could devote all his efforts to science and not on the mundane matter of working to support family. While at King’s College, Danielle worked on advancing Volta’s battery, developing a battery that would be named the Daniell Cell.
So just what was the Daniell Cell? Let’s see if I can get this right the first time. The Daniell Cell was pretty much a copper pot stuffed with a copper sulfate solution. That pot was put into another pot made of earthenware rather than metal. It in turn was filled with sulfuric acid. A zinc electrode was put into the mix to create a reaction. By building on the works of both Volta and Faraday, Daniell created a battery that produced an electric current that was stable and eliminated the pesky and dangerous hydrogen bubble problem that formed with Volta’s model.
Here’s a Daniell Cell:
Photo of an early Danielle Battery 1836
And here’s another one:
Photo of an early Daniell Battery 1836 courtesy University of Malta
Looks a bit … er … dangerous. Not to mention not very portable, but then that wasn’t a necessity. I don’t think modern Health & Safety would be impressed. But here’s the thing, Daniell’s ground breaking invention fueled a boom in communications. It was the building block for the expansion of the new telegraphic network that snaked throughout both the UK and US and the new electrical industry until well into the 1870s when newer developments made the Daniell obsolete. The chemical reaction in the battery sparked the currents that drove the burgeoning communication advancements … all leading nearly 200 years later to your little smart phone. Technology, amazing, isn’t it.
You can read more on how the Daniell Cell works here: Notes from the Oesper Collections The Daniell Cell William B. Jensen Department of Chemistry, University of Cincinnati Cincinnati, OH. It opens a pdf you can download and read.
Read more about John Daniell: https://www.chemistryworld.com/opinion/daniells-cell/7919.article and the Encyclopedia of World Scientists (Rev. ed) by Elizabeth Oakes.
We don’t spend much time thinking about the little bits of technology that make life easier, do we? Here’s a case – the pencil sharpener. When was the last time you thought about one, other when you couldn’t find it and cursed the blunt point on your pencil? Here’s my favourite:
Best pencil sharpener around – the Staedtler
The little metal Staedtler sharpener. I own 5 of them, including 2 hole, single hole and covered sharpeners. Oh and I have 2 of their beautiful mechanical pencils and about 20 of the Mars Lumograph pencils. I have a thing for tidy, beautiful examples of technology that works. I also have a thing for Staedtler. The first time I saw a Staedtler sharpener, I coveted it. I was in the library and watched, with envy as someone whipped out a little perfect work of technological art and sharpened pencils. I leaned over the table and asked him where he got it. I was awestruck. When I finally found one I bought it. It was beautiful. The little metal body makes it durable – can’t tell you how many of those dreaded little plastic ones I’ve crushed over the years. And quite honestly, the plastic sharpeners are crap, they break off the point because the angle of the blade is often just off enough that it gouges out chunks of pencil. The little Staedtler shaves off thin slivers of wood and hones pencil leads to a perfect point. Maybe I should just retitle this “Ode to a pencil sharpener” and be done with it. The angle and quality of the blade, durability of the casing, the ridges on the sides to make holding it easier – everything about the sharpener is “right”.
My mini love affair with Staedtler pencil sharpeners (and pencils) sparked a bit of curiosity about the evolution of sharpeners. While searching, I found some intriguing early patents for pencil sharpeners and references to the first practical design. Bernard Lassimonne, a French mathematician, is credited with receiving the first patent for a pencil sharpener. I’m searching for a copy of it, but I’m a bit hindered by my disgraceful French. He evidently took an ad out in Le Constitutionnel, a French newspaper, sometime in 1829 to promote his invention. I’m also searching through the newspaper’s archives and hope to find the ad, but … it may take me a long time to find it. Although I’m having little luck with my initial search, I have found what I think would have been the coolest sharpener ever – the G. H. Park pencil sharpener and lead protector: Patent #193,545, Patented July 24, 1877. You can see the original patent here.
Here’s one view of it, from the patent papers:
Drawing of G. H. Park’s pencil sharpener from his 1877 patent
In 1877, George Park, of New York State “invented a new and valuable improvement in pencil-sharpeners” and it’s pretty damned cool:
“This little instrument is intended to remain on the pencil while in use and until the pencil is consumed.
It also forms a point-protector, as it can be pulled down sufficiently far to bring the point of the pencil within the sharpener, and when the pencil is to be used it is readily pushed out again, the spring of the metal holding the instrument at any point on the pencil.
The instrument thus forms a combined sharpener and point protector, and it can be manufactured at a very trifling cost, and is simple, durable, and effective in operation. It adapts itself to any-sized pencil, and is not liable to be lost, as the spring of the metal holds it with sufficient tension or friction on the pencil.”
Image from patent papers for the pencil sharpener
Here’s another view that offers a better idea of how it fits on a pencil:
So, you slip the sharpener onto the pencil, it automatically expands or contracts to fit the body and, as you shave the pencil down, will hold the lead point so you don’t snap it off by accident. It’s like hybrid mechanical pencil when you think about it. No more searching for your sharpener – it’s always attached. Might be a bugger if you lose your pencil though. I’ve looked around to see if it was ever produced and can’t’ find any examples. Maybe it was one of those great ideas on paper that didn’t translate to real life. There were a number of similar designs that promoted “ever point” sharpeners and a couple made it to market. But not a sign of this one. Kind of a pity really.
Visit my Facebook page and hit the Like button if you want to see more old patents. I’ll be exploring more over the coming months. If you have a favourite, drop me a line (either below in the comments field) or on the Bitter Grounds Facebook page
I was amused by a discussion on-line not long ago where someone asked “what did people do before technology”, meaning back in the dark days of the 1980s. I chuckled because of the assumption technology is shiny new and millennial. It often comes as a shock to people when you point out the wheel is technology and that tech is nothing more than the “application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry” (Oxford dictionary).
So … I thought it might be fun exploring tech – of all types. I often wander through Google’s Patent search engine looking for cool stuff. My favourites are proposals that never quite made it off paper. Not all were fails, some were simply ahead of their times. Some were a combination of too soon and too impractical. To wit: Theodor Gibon’s, of Clarksville, Tennessee, aeroplane (Patented Sept 30, 1902):
Look vaguely familiar? While everyone was mad for straight wing designs, in 1902 good old Theodore took a different approach. He created a sleek, single delta that was ahead of it’s time in terms of wing design. This sweeping v resembles the modern B-2 Stealth bomber. Or rather, the B-2 looks like the T. Gibon aeroplane. Okay, yes I agree, the Gibon looks more like a paper airplane, but you get my point.
Andreas Theodor Heinrich Gibon, born in Bremen, Germany, was living in the US around the turn of the century. Although the records show he immigrated in 1895, he still identified himself as a German subject at the time of filing the patent – “Be it known that I, THEODORE GIBON, a subject of the Emperor of Germany, and a resident of Clarksville, in the county of Montgomery, State of Tennessee”. The census records of 1910 ad 1920 show he had settled into a job as a tobacconist in a local factory so I guess, by 1910, he had given up hopes of developing aircrafts any further. Searching for any other patents in his name came up empty.
You can read the full patent here: https://patentimages.storage.googleapis.com/pdfs/6d2fc0b7820fa0a52bcf/US710266.pdf It’s 2 pages and filled with wonderfully sci fi sounding ideas. I read the patent but got lost in the babble about “motive fluids” that would drive the … engine? Come to think of it, he didn’t describe any engine, just a series of pipes carrying liquid air around the airplane. Flight would be achieved by opening and closing various valves and ultimately discharging the liquid through vents. Basically, he designed the ultimate glider, but included a mechanism to control wind currents to propel the airplane.
under the impulse of the reaction from the stern discharges and from any or all parts of the wing-sections, too, if desired, the machine will fly rapidly forward to the 45 positions km, &c., and continue on that tack as long as the engineer may deem expedient.. In like manner the aeroplane may be steered to the left or to the right by causing discharges of motive fluid from the right or the left side 50 of the wings or body, as will be readily understood.
from Letters Patent No. 710,266, dated September 30, 1902. Application filed April 24, 1901. Serial No. 57,229
Was it at all practical? Not a clue, I’m not even going to pretend to understand the basics of flight or mechanics. My knowledge of flight is limited to buying a ticket and getting to my seat. I do suspect the entire fluid reaction mechanics are pretty pie in the sky stuff. But the wings … the wings!
It’s interesting to see a design we associate with the cutting edge sitting on a 100+ year old patent. Gibons ran contrary to the trend of straight wing designs, including multiple layers of wings. His single, swept back v, despite the rudimentary drawings, indicates an vision for aerodynamics that was ahead of his time.
Here’s the back view:
Invert it and you have:
A forerunner of the B-2, although admittedly the Gibon does look more like an origami project on steroids. Or maybe one of those spaceships on Stargate – the flying pyramids. Regardless, when the Stealth was revealed, people were left breathless with the flying wing design. There is an element of a bold dreamer in Gibon’s patent. Too bad he didn’t live to see the B-2 fly. His mechanics may have been nonsense, but the wing design was spot on.
Oh yea, I love trolling through old patents. You just never know what you’ll find.
I was helping a customer clean out their “box ‘o useless parts” a couple of weeks ago. Every customer has one, you know, that box of computer manuals, cables, electrical devices they breathlessly tell you they “have no idea what they belong to but keep just because well … one day I might need it”. Ah yes, computers – enabling that little hoarding gene in so many. So for decades junk gets thrown into this mysterious box of parts, hidden deep in the closet, like shameful computer porn. Eventually someone in the house gets frustrated or fed up with the black box of mystery and drags it out when I come to fix their computer.
I always enjoy this, it’s like a little blast from the past. Occasionally I find a real treasure, usually it’s mountain of obsolete computer stuff. I can count on at least 2 parallel printer cables, various pin to usb adapters, mice, keyboards, old PDAs that died grisly deaths (often involving a toilet for some reason), 5 ¼ floppies, Windows 3.1 disks, and old printer ribbons. Once in a while someone drags out a zip drive or even better a dot matrix printer. On one memorable day someone dragged out a beautiful Underwood 1930s typewriter. It was beautiful! Not exactly an electronic component, but hey, it’s a precursor relic as far as I’m concerned – that invaluable archeological evidence of the evolution of word processing. We found a home for the typewriter and it’s proudly on display in someone’s house.
Sometimes I’m staggered by the sheer amount of stuff shoved into a closet. It happens when a customer is downsizing and moving to a smaller place. Out comes everything – and I mean everything. Once I found an old Coleco Adam – now that was a treasure. We sold that to someone for a nice price. I was surprised to find collectors out there – the unit was pristine and had the manuals, box and all sorts of extras. She drove home with cash jingling in her pocket and a grin. I don’t think she told her son how much she made off it. She simply stated “I warned him I was getting rid of everything, his loss” That’s rare, usually everything heads to recycling.
The last foray into the past dredged up this:
Note the ripping speed of 10 mbps. I remember installing many GVC cards, including this particular one. Can’t remember which company, but one butchered the manual translation so badly, I kept it for years. The schematics were even backwards. It was always an adventure. While taking this photo, I flashed onto the 14.4 bps modem I bought decades ago – for a short while I was the fastest dial up in the neighbourhood. I could download a megs worth of data faster than anyone else. And no kids, we didn’t stream video. That was a sci fi notion.
I look forward to the next Cabinet of Curiosities.
One of the best news/social media aggregate apps on the market is Flipboard. When I upgraded to Windows 8.1, I was delighted to be able to download the app and it is now a mainstay of my daily coffee ritual. Unfortunately, phones with 512mb memory were not able to use the app. This week, Flipboard announced it’s newest version will allow all Windows 8 phones use Flipboard.
If you haven’t tried it yet, you can download it to your desktop/laptop/tablet or phone. One login will sync to all your devices.
Smart Phone App