The Robertson: The screw that almost toppled the Phillips

It’s a story that hints at the luck factor that sometimes takes innovation for a ride.  The characters include an entrepreneur who had once been deceived and taken to the point of bankruptcy. And a then early stages car manufacturer who wanted the exclusive license to the product. All in all, a tale of what could have been. The Canadian square-shaped Robertson Drive was invented in 1908, shortly after its inventor, P. L. Robertson, injured himself when his slotted screwdriver slipped from the head of a slotted screw. The Robertson drive improved much upon the most dominant screw type of the time by preventing drive slippage, which was, and still is, a common complaint with simple slotted drives.

One of the early clients for these screws was the Fisher Body Company, which used to design wooden body parts for Ford cars in Canada. When Ford was testing the Robertson screws to employ with their assembly line, they discovered that by using those advanced fasteners, they could actually save up to 2 hours of their assembly time per vehicle. Henry Ford offered a deal to Robertson – an exclusive partnership which would mean he couldn’t sell his patent items to other companies.

Both entrepreneurs, neither would agree to do business without complete control of their product. Robertson went home empty-handed. Ford and other car manufacturers stuck with the slot screw and eventually used a screw with a star-shaped impression. It was an inferior design, but its patent holder, Henry F. Phillips, wasn’t sticky about ownership. Ever since, the Phillips screw has dominated the U.S. market.

We may praise the Phillips’ accessibility and its reputation as a friend of DIYers. But before the Phillips, there was the Robertson.