Canadian P.L. Robertson, though he was not the first person to patent the idea of socket-head screws, was the first to successfully commercialize them, starting in 1908. Socket screws rapidly grew in popularity, and are still used for their resistance to wear and tear, compatibility with hex keys, and ability to stop a power tool when set. Though immensely popular, Robertson had trouble marketing his invention to the newly booming auto industry, for he was unwilling to relinquish his patents.
Meanwhile, in Portland, Oregon, Henry F. Phillips patented his own invention, an improved version of a deep socket with a cruciform slot, today known as the Phillips Screw. Phillips offered his screw to the American Screw Company, and after a successful trial on the 1936 Cadillac, it quickly swept through the American auto industry. With the Industrial Revival at the end of the Great Depression and the upheaval of World War II, the Phillips screw quickly became, and remains, the most popular screw in the world. A main attraction for the screw was that conventional slotted screwdrivers could also be used on them, which was not possible with the Robertson Screw. [..]
Phillips screwdrivers come in several standard sizes, ranging from tiny “jeweler’s” to those used for automobile frame assembly—or #000 to #4 respectively. This size number is usually stamped onto the shank (shaft) or handle for identification. Each bit size fits a range of screw sizes, more or less well. Each Phillips screwdriver size also has a related shank diameter. The driver has a 57° point and tapered, unsharp (rounded) flutes. The #1 and smaller bits come to a blunt point, but the #2 and above have no point, but rather a nearly squared-off tip, making each size incompatible with the other.
The design is often criticized for its tendency to cam out at lower torque levels than other “cross head” designs, an effect caused by the tapered profile of the flutes which makes them easier to insert into the screw than other similar styles. There has long been a popular belief that this was actually a deliberate feature of the design. Evidence is lacking for this specific narrative and the feature is not mentioned in the original patents. However, a subsequent refinement to the original design described in US Patent #2,474,994 describes this feature.
Robertson, also known as a square, or Scrulox screw drive has a square-shaped socket in the screw head and a square protrusion on the tool. Both the tool and the socket have a taper, which makes inserting the tool easier, and also tends to help keep the screw on the tool tip without the user needing to hold it there. (The taper’s earliest reason for being was to make the manufacture of the screws practical using cold forming of the heads, but its other advantages helped popularize the drive.) Robertson screws are commonplace in Canada, though they have been used elsewhere, and have become much more common in other countries in recent decades. Robertson screwdrivers are easy to use one-handed, because the tapered socket tends to retain the screw, even if it is shaken. They also allow for the use of angled screw drivers and trim head screws. The socket-headed Robertson screws are self-centering, reduce cam out, stop a power tool when set, and can be removed if painted-over or old and rusty. In industry, they speed up production and reduce product damage. One of their first major industrial uses was the Ford Motor Company’s Model A & Model T production. Henry Ford found them highly reliable and saved considerable production time, but he couldn’t secure licensing for them in the United States, so he limited their use solely to his Canadian division. Robertson-head screwdrivers are available in a standard range of tip-sizes, from 1.77mm to 4.85mm.
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