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- Portland Tribune - News
Every Friday in Stumptown Stumper, the Portland Tribune offers a trivia question and answer that helps you boost your Rose City IQ.
Q: Which one of the most commonly used household tools was invented by a Portland businessman in the 1930s?
A: Believe it or not, the universally famous Phillips screw (and, subsequently, screwdriver) was the brainchild of one of Portland's own, Henry F. Phillips.
The story goes back to the start of American mass production in the 1920s, when manufacturers apparently were slowed by the traditional slotted screw and needed a more efficient design.
Phillips, a Portland engineer who managed the Oregon Copper Co., got involved after he heard from an acquaintance by the name of J.P. Thompson one day in 1933. Thompson apparently had patented a cross-shaped screw with a deep recess that holds the screwdriver better and is therefore more efficient.
But Thompson didn't have a way to adapt this screw for mass production, so the major screw manufacturers had rejected his design. He asked his friend Phillips for help.
Believing the idea had merit, Phillips got the financial backing of Jantzen Knitting Mills in 1933 to open the Phillips Screw Co., which teamed up with the American Screw Co. the next year to develop a 'cold heading' manufacturing process that could effectively make and market the invention.
Phillips bought the rights to the original patent in 1935, made further modifications and obtained his own patent (No. 2046839) in 1936.
The American Screw and Phillips Screw companies worked together to introduce, license and market the new drive system worldwide, in the automobile community and beyond.
By 1945, however, Phillips retired due to poor health, and an American Screw Co. official, Joseph Tomalis, obtained another patent for an improved Phillips drive system in 1949. This now is the standard Phillips drive system that is in use today.
The name 'Phillips' became so generic that the Phillips Screw Co. lost the trademark rights to the name, so this drive system is no longer licensed or controlled in any way by the Phillips Screw Co..
This history, by the way, was kindly provided by Lee Dougan, an engineer at the Phillips Screw Co., now based in the Boston suburbs.
Phillips died in Portland in 1958 at age 68; the Oregon Journal noted his role in the manufacturing industry as well as his being an 'honorary member of the University Club and known for his activity in hunting and fishing.'
Next week's Stumper: You've probably noticed it while driving north on Interstate 5, under the Marquam Bridge: there's a graffiti-covered stub of a highway ramp hanging high overhead, in the opposite direction. How did this 'highway to nowhere' come to exist?
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