Henry F. Phillips — when do we celebrate?

Herny Phillips' patent for the Phillips screw and screwdriver (Google Patents)

Patent drawings for the Phillips screw and screwdriver, 1936

Only Crook in Town was alerted to the work of Henry F. Phillips by an alert and helpful librarian (well — aren’t they all?). She worries –January 15 is Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, and July 7 is the middle of the summer — what day would be appropriate to celebrate the invention and patenting of the Phillips Screwdriver? (If image above does not display, click the thumbnail picture at the end of the post.)

Ah, history teachers, you noticed that the drawing comes from Google’s files of patent applications. And now you wonder: What other wonderful illustrations can we legally rip off to use in class? Wonderful question — what do you find?

The Phillips screwdriver came along in time for World War II and the mass assembly of aircraft, and aircraft instrument panels. The Phillips screw head helped aircraft assemblers keep from scratching the black metal of the rest of the panel while securing instruments into the forms.

Few of us remember the time when Phillips screws and screwdrivers did not exist. From such small steps come giant leaps. Phillips actually developed his screwdriver in 1933. He founded a company in Oregon to market it, but he couldn’t get screw manufacturers to make the screws — literally every one turned him down. Finally, he convinced a new company, the American Screw Company, to make the screws. Norman Nock wrote about the success of Phillips’ inventions in Austin Healy magazine in 1996:

Use of the Phillips Screw spread through the automobile industry at a rapid rate. By 1939 it was used by all but two automobile manufacturers. By 1940 Phillips screws were used by the entire automotive industry. although one major manufacturer still would not use them on its passenger cars. Gradually the Phillips screw and screwdriver worked their way into other industrial applications. then consumer products, and eventually showed up in hardware stores.

American Screw Company spent approximately $500,000 in the 1930s to produce the Phillips screw, and obtained patents on the manufacturing methods. It was the sole licenser of the process. By 1940, 10 American and 10 foreign companies were licensed to manufacture the screw. The first off the assembly line were plated with gold and silver and made into a necklace for the president’s wife and into a set of cufflinks. I have had the privilege to know the grandson of Henry Phillips who showed me the necklace and cufflinks.

American Screw Company advertised that these fasteners could speed up auto assembly lines because they could be used safely with power drivers–tools that might slip and mar a car’s finish if used with conventional slotted screws.

These screws could also be driven with more torque and would hold together tighter than slotted screws. Phillips screws also centered more quickly and easily.

Mr. Phillips had come up with a recessed cross screw designed for efficient installation on an auto assembly line. The idea was that the screwdriver would turn file screw with increasing f1orce until the tip of the driver popped out–which brings us to the real reason behind the invention of this screw: It was designed to come out as if was driven in by screwdrivers so the screw head would not be ruined or broken off. When tightening a Phillips screw with a Phillips screw driver you will notice that when the torque gets to be too strong, the screw driver winds itself out of the screw–a feature built into the design of the system. A recent evolution of the Phillips design resulted in the patented ACR Phillips II(R)–a screwdriver that has ribs on both the driving and removal faces on the wings, making it ideal for assembly line and home use.

Development of a screw that would not “torque out”–the Pozidriv screw–came as the result of a joint effort of American Screw Company and the Phillips Screw Company. Since the Pozidriv screw will not torque out. any damage to the screw or tile surrounding surface is minimized. Phillips drivers should not be used with Posidriv screws (and vice versa) as they tend to ride out of the recess and round the corners of both the tool and screw recess.

The sad coda to this story is that the invention was so successful it was widely copied, and Phillips was not able to successfully defend his patent. By 1949, he lost the patent, according to Wikipedia. Did he get rich? I don’t know. He died in 1958. The Phillips Screw Company is still in business.

And, what day should we celebrate this little, wonderful technological innovation?

Patent drawing for Phillips Screwdriver

Patent drawing for Phillips Screwdriver

12 Responses to Henry F. Phillips — when do we celebrate?

  1. Edgar Sinclair says:

    I bet the heirs are loaded.

    Yeah, my dad invented the phillips screw…


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    Rick, please be sure to give credit for the story to J. Crook, who put me on to it. Good research deserves credit, I think.


  3. Rick Griggs says:

    Fascinating history of Phillips and the innovative screw. Sadly, much of it matches the story of many inventions. I plan to include this wionderful history in my programs on innovation. Quid Novi Innovations, Rick Griggs, Founder


  4. Terri Rees (Estrada) says:

    To Ed Darrell-
    I only now saw your post. Please do let me know if there is anything I can contribute to recognizing my grandfather.


  5. I don’t usually reply to posts but I will in this case. WoW :)


  6. Mary Brigid Phillips says:

    Dear Cousins

    It would be great if our grandfather could receive the recognition he deserves for his invention(the screw). He also invented several other items like the pour spout that is found on salt containers and a toy on a spring called a “Zing Zang”. Let me know if I can help in any way. I would like to meet you all!
    E-mail: maryphillips7241@att.net

    Mary Brigid Phillips
    Daughter of John (Jack)


  7. Ed Darrell says:

    Sad to see that Only Crook In Town seems to have gone defunct, with all material deleted from the archives at WordPress. Anyone know anything about it?


  8. Ed Darrell says:

    Terri, could someone from the family serve as spokesman to promote recognition of your grandfather? I think that were someone to push gently, but consistently, and over time, the recognition would come.

    For example, can you tell us when his birthday anniversary is? If we had a day for informal recognition, that would be a good start.


  9. Terri Rees Estrada says:

    As another of Henry Phillips grandchildren (my mother Dorothy was Henry’s only daughter), I have always wondered why his patent and renowned screw have not been recognized to the extent that it deserves. He overcame years of defeat to get the screw that he patented manufactured. Within 3 years of its introduction to the automotive industry, it was used on virtually every US car manufactured. It truly was a revolutionary design. I was surprised it did not receive recognition in 2000, when news and magazines reviewed inventions of the 20th century.

    Since I was born after grandfather’s death, I have only the oral history (including vague information about his being scammed out of his screw company) and photos to remember him by.


  10. Mary Brigid Phillips says:

    Thank you for writing about my grandfather. There are 21 grandchildren of Henry Frank Phillips. I am the daughter of John E. Phillips — the youngest of grandfather’s children.

    It is true that grandfather was scammed out of his screw company. It is very sad and still divides and hurts the family.

    I do think this invention should be celebrated and honored as it really did help win the “War” and help the soldiers needing orthopedic surgery.


  11. onlycrook says:

    I emailed the company to see if they know his birthdate, so maybe they’ll email the information back. I’ll keep you posted.


  12. Jack Payne says:

    Fascinating story covering the development of the Phillips screw. Legend has it that, somehow, Phillips was scammed out of his holdings in 1949. But, I’ve never seen any conclusive evidence emerge to confirm any of this.


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