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Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The Robertson Square Drive Screw

In general when a wonderful new invention comes along it sweeps aside the competition, is widely adopted and replaces the previous way of doing things.

There are however various examples in history of superior technologies being superceded by inferior ones, the betamax video for example was technically far superior to VHS, but because VHS was cheaper it became the standard and the range of films available on betamax soon dwindled to naught.

Another fine example is the Robertson square drive screw, patented in 1909 by a Canadian gentleman called Peter Robertson, it was - if you'll pardon the pun - quite revolutionary. The square driver engaged much more positively with the head of the screw than the pre-existing slot head arrangement, transmission of power was excellent and the tapered square hole in the top of the screw could be punched straight into the cold metal, so it was comparatively cheap to produce.

Henry Ford was a great fan of the technology because it meant that wooden car bodies could be produced faster and more efficiently. You would think that with a product decades ahead of it's time and a mustard keen patron, who also happened to be the most famous industrialist of the 20th century, that the future of the Robertson screw was guaranteed.

Unfortunately, the firm he had licensed to produce them in England were not quite as fine and upstanding as one would hope, and used a loophole to bankrupt their firm and then bought the rights back from the receiver, which neatly eliminated the need to pay Robertson his royalties.

Cowed by this despicable experience, Robertson was understandably loathe to grant production licenses to anyone else and with the exception of the Canadian market, which Robertson's own company satisfied, the Robertson square drive was eclipsed by the inferior Philips (purposely designed to cam out so that it couldn't be over tightened) with which the world has been saddled ever since. Developments using a similar principle to the Robertson drive like Allen (hexagonal) and Torx (star) have unsurprisingly gone on to become hugely popular world wide. 

One beacon of hope for the square drive screw is the American pocket-hole technology specialist (and very clever inventors in their own right) Kreg, for whom we are now a stockist and will, over the coming month or so, be introducing their full range of products.

So although Mr Robertson unfortunately didn't live to see it, an altogether more scrupulous British company will now be getting behind his remarkable invention 100% and giving him due credit for it too.


  1. Great post... Here in Canada it's hard not to find something that doesn't have robertson screws in it.When you ask someone to pass you a screwdriver here, you either ask for a red "robbie" or a green "robbie", or maybe a black one, depending on the size you needed.I have never seen an electrical device, or box, that doesn't use robbies. Up here they're like an institution.

    Danny G Toronto

  2. Hi Danny,

    Thanks for your message.

    It's amazing to think that the whole planet could have been like that. Perhaps the word screwdriver would be as defunct as the original name turnscrew, and we would all now be calling them Robbies!

    I first encountered them through Kreg, and I must admit, I thought it was just a way to ensure that people kept buying their screws. It's refreshing to find out that they are in fact commonplace - albeit only in Canada - and have just been chosen because they are the best tool for the job.

  3. I use the Torx drive for my Pocket Hole work. But then I'm a rebel! :)