72nd birthday for Phillips (the screw)

On July 7th 1936 (just about 72 years ago) Mr. Henry F Phillips received a patent for a type of screw and the accompanying screwdriver – the Phillips screw. The Phillips screw has been around for so long, and have been taken for granted for so long that I’ve never pondered about its birth – why did someone come up with a “+” shaped head to go along with the “-” shape. The only thing that went off in my mind was probably, “+” shape has four arms and somehow that makes it easier to turn and less likely to slip.

It was of course that, and more:

The Phillips-head screw and Phillips screwdriver were designed for power tools, especially power tools on assembly lines. The shallow, cruciform slot in the screw allows the tapering cruciform shape of the screwdriver to seat itself automatically when contact and rotation are achieved. That saves a second or two, and if you’ve got hundreds of screws in thousands of units (say, cars), you’re talking big time here.

And not only does a power Phillips driver get engaged fast, it stays engaged and doesn’t tend to slide out of the screw from centrifugal force. Another advantage: It’s hard to overscrew with a power tool. The screwdriver will likely just pop out when the screw is completely fastened.

Ah! That additional bit of engineering, design and thoughtfulness that almost everyone have taken for granted – and I suppose, that’s why it became such a popular fastener.

That said, consumer electronics do seem to increasingly treat screws with disdain – it is now seen more as a blot in the aesthetics, if you will. Could the screw ever one day disappear from manufactured products altogether?

[via WIRED]


8 comments so far

  1. Nat O. on

    Pffft. Every time I come across a rusty phillips head screw, I curse the heavens. These things get stripped more of ten than a gitmo inmate. Thanks, but I’ll take the Robertson head screw over a Phillips any day.

  2. Gems Sty on

    Wow, you really have a grudge against Phillips screws don’t you! I guess I don’t deal with screws much so I wouldn’t really know their relative merits.


    Wow, there are really quite many types!

  3. Scott Sullivan on

    Once again, we are giving away too much credit. We assume that Mr. Phillips invented the “+” screwdriver and screw when actually, about 14 years before Mr. Phillips was even born (b.1890), a man named Freason received a US patent (179,695) that disclosed a screwdriver that included the basic “+” drive structure. Freason received a couple more patents improving this basic driver structure, still years before Phillips entered the world.

    Then, in May, 1933, a guy named Thompson received a patent that further advanced the “+” driver structure of Freason. This patent (US 1,908,081) was actually purchased by Phillips before it even issued.

    A main difference between these older “+” drive designs was that the driver was pointed sharp and did not include the engineered shape of the “+” which works so well with the mating screw.

    Now, I do believe that even though Phillips was a known as a businessman, he did appear to be the person who improved the earlier sharp “+” head designs by truncating the tip (and including screw-holding structural details), thereby allowing the “+” shaped screw to be more easily manufactured. To this end, I’ll give him tons of credit for getting the “+” drive head to work well enough for the manufacturing world to take off with it, but he did not invent the original “+” shape driver.

  4. Nat O. on

    Well, I’m just saying that when phillips head screws get rusty, they strip really easily. Brand new, they’re definitely very efficient.

  5. Gems Sty on

    Haha thanks Scott – I should appoint you as the resident CPO – Chief Patents Officer. πŸ˜‰

    I guess Phillips screws are only *really* useful when it has the sharp head – that’s where it makes difference when it can now provide for applications in industrial automation etc. But thanks for noting and pointing out that ‘Phillips’ isn’t synonymous with ‘+’, but more like ‘+ with tapered head’.

    Nat O.,
    Do Robertson screws fasten/loosen well when they are rusty? (Just to be fair to Phillips) πŸ™‚

  6. John Frearson on

    Thanks for the mention of my namesake John Frearson [NOT Freason]of Birmingham. As well as inventing the Frearson cross head [still well known in the USA]and patenting other fixings for the textile inductry, he [and another] was also responsible for introducing the Saturday half day to Birmingham. He lectured extensively on Industrial relations. His wife ran a temperance hotel.

    Cheers – John [researching the Frearson family worldwide]

  7. Scott Sullivan on

    Sorry for the name error! Sounds like he was a pretty smart man! Any other inventors in your family?

  8. DAVE MOORE on


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