This is the story of a man who invented a screw.
Something funny happened in the 1930s. The American automobile industry discovered that flat-head screws didn’t do a good job on the assembly line. They didn’t fasten the metal parts of a car together … tight enough!
That’s when an inventor saw an opportunity.
In 1934 a Portland Oregon traveling salesman named Henry F. Phillips teamed up with another inventor, John Thomas, to invent the Phillips screw. Actually the Phillips system – the screws, drill bits and the screw drivers necessary to give automakers the torque … or force … they needed.
And so was born The Phillips Screw, a screw with a cruciform – or cross-shaped head — and a pointy screw driver to match. It was unique in several ways. For one thing, the screw driver “cammed out” when it reached its maximum torque or tightness, so the screw head couldn’t snap off. In the words of Inc. writer Mary Kwak, it was “an intentional design flaw,” and its purpose was to make it nearly impossible for assembly line workers to over-screw It saved them from injury, and prevented parts and product from damages.
Oddly enough Henry Phillips never manufactured a single screw. With the support of the Jantzen Knitting Mills, he set up a company to license his patent to other companies. Cadillac used them first in 1937. Soon other American automakers switched to them. Then came World War II, and the Phillips System helped America crank out high quality cars, jeeps, tanks and ships for the war effort.
It seemed like a sure road to riches. But when unlicensed knock off’s appeared, the Phillips Screw Company didn’t go after patent violators, and in 1949, Phillips lost his patent.
In 1958, he died in obscurity.
Despite the ultimate outcome, Phillips made a contribution that lives on to this day. His inventions became international standards. And the corporation he founded, the Phillips Screw Company lives on — licensing proprietary fastening systems to thousands of customers in the global aerospace, automotive, electronics, marine and military industries.
Phillips Screw Company describes its founder’s invention as “a true engineering breakthrough” that revolutionized industry, “saving manufacturers countless dollars in labor and damaged components.”
Henry Phillips exemplifies one of our Axioms for Entrepreneurs: Open your eyes to new trends. When automakers needed a new way to fasten metal parts together, he came up with an engineering breakthrough, the Phillips screw.
Now why didn’t I think of that?