Toques? Politeness? Strong beer? Forget all that. It's a simple piece of hardware that sets us apart from Americans.
The Robertson square-drive: a screw topped with a square hole ready to receive its matching hand driver. A thing of beauty for Canadian woodworkers because that recessed square won't let you slip out. The screwdriver fits so snugly, you can torque this baby upside-down with one hand. It's the best screw around, and most Americans have never heard of it. (They're stuck fumbling with the slot- or Phillips star-head fasteners that, like any cheap screw, strip far too easily.)
Canadians who grew up using the 94-year-old invention likely haven't heard much about Peter Lymburner Robertson, the screw's Ontario inventor, or the story of how North America became a continent of two screw solitudes.
A documentary on History Television hopes to change that. Ode to the Robertson Screwdriver airs on the Turning Points series on Father's Day, tomorrow. (Sexist scheduling for sure, but let's face it, every store flyer pushed through the mail slot this week features power tools front and centre.)
Ode is not just a film about screws and screwdrivers; it's the story of a Canadian inventor who, out of pride, kept his best idea from crossing the border. Patented in 1909, the square-drive screws only began appearing in U.S. specialty wood shops in the mid-1980s. American furniture, appliance and mobile-home industries use them, but the classic Canadian fastener is still virtually unknown to do-it-yourself home renovators. Home Depot reports Robertson screwdrivers account for less than 5 per cent of sales in the United States. In Canada, that figure jumps to roughly 55 per cent.
"This screw is ours and we won't go near any other one," says Alan Mendelson, the film's producer. "It's one of those rites of passage that every Canadian goes through. When you're fumbling around with the slot and your father or uncle says, 'What are you doing? You've got to use a Robertson!' " (Like any good Canadian, Mendelson forgoes the screw's generic name, square-drive, for the brand name, Robertson.)
Mendelson spent six months researching the film and actually found people who could be passionate about screws without being boring. Among them are Toronto tool historian Jim Packham, who has a story for every item in his vast collection, and Robertson biographer Ken Lamb.
Peter L. Robertson (P.L. to friends) was a tinkerer. He hit it big with his revolutionary screw, but before that patented a better mousetrap, cufflink, corkscrew and The 20th-Century Wrench-Brace, a tool that worked as a screwdriver, wrench, brace, vise, rivet- and staple-maker. "The greatest tool on Earth," he called it. P.L. was also an enthusiastic salesman. In the early 1900s he paid the bills by travelling throughout Eastern Canada selling his Wrench-Brace and touting tools from a Philadelphia company. One of these was a spring-loaded screwdriver. During a demonstration on a Montreal street, the spring-loaded driver slipped out of the slot screw and badly cut his hand. That's when P.L. decided he needed a safer screw.
In One Good Turn,author Witold Rybczynski (also interviewed in the film) writes about the history of screwdrivers. There's a chapter on the Robertson where he explains it's killer-ap: "The secret of his invention was the exact shape of the recess, which was square with chamfered edges, slightly tapering sides, and a pyramidal bottom." The pyramid dip at the bottom of the square hole means the screwdriver fit in snugly. (Just ask Red Green: "If you're working on a ladder, use a Robertson. Then when the ladder slips you can hang on to the screwdriver briefly. You still fall, but you've got a couple of seconds. A lot of times, that's all you need to position your feet away from the rosebush.")
Red Green's application likely wasn't on Robertson's mind when he applied for a patent in 1907, then smooth-talked the town of Milton, Ont., into loaning him $10,000 to open the P.L. Robertson Manufacturing Company Ltd. In February, 1909, the 30-year-old inventor received his patent, but by then the company was already filling orders for boat builders and furniture makers. By 1915, his screws were fastening the wooden bodies of Ford cars at the Fisher-Body Company, his biggest customer. Things were going great guns, and Robertson tried to expand outside Canada before his patent ran out. He opened a plant in Britain just before the First World War but it couldn't make the switch to peacetime production (too many screws on the market) and went under.
Robertson came home to Milton and started talking with Americans. He tried twice. Negotiations fell apart early with a Buffalo screw company because he refused to give up control. Then Henry Ford realized his Windsor, Ont., plant was saving roughly $2.60 per Model-T using Robertson square-drives. Robertson was called down to Detroit for meetings. Both entrepreneurs, neither would agree to do business without complete control of their product. Robertson went home empty-handed. Ford and other car manufacturers stuck with the slot screw and eventually used a screw with a star-shaped impression. It was an inferior design, but its patent holder, Henry F. Phillips, wasn't sticky about ownership.
Ever since, the Phillips screw has dominated the U.S. market.
Down but not out, Robertson stayed in Milton and made sure that every Canadian homeowner used his screws. He distributed hundreds of free kits containing 100 screws and three screwdrivers, the package read: "Fix it in half the time." Robertson was 72 when he died in 1951, a lifelong bachelor whose passion for port, Scotch and cigars was legendary.
Today, the company he started, now called Robertson Inc., keeps its head office in Milton, but the screws are made in Montreal. (Ironically, Robertson Inc. was bought out by a Chicago-based holding company in 1981.) Milton, the town of 36,000 located west of Toronto, is proud of its inventor. The historical society published 950 copies of the only book filmmaker Mendelson could find about the man, a 186-page tome by Lamb called P.L.: Inventor of the Robertson Screw. They had to go it alone because this great Canadian story has been largely ignored by the popular press. There's the occasional brief newspaper article, but P. L. Robertson isn't in The Canadian Encyclopedia.
Even if Canadians don't know much about him, they use his screws. And the Robertson revolution is beginning stateside.
"The border is disappearing for retailers," says Vaughn Crofford, president of the Canadian Hardware and Housewares Association. "Wal-Mart and Home Depot will be able to take what is a good idea, such as a Robertson screwdriver, put it in their stores and get the American public using it."
That may be happening this very Father's Day. One of the largest manufacturers of nuts and bolts in Canada, H. Paulin & Co., is now supplying Home Depot stores in the United States. "The first thing you're going to see down there is a big influx of the square-drive screws," says Peter Vernon, Home Depot's head buyer for hardware in Canada. "People will figure out how good it is and it's only likely to spread."
That will still take time. Red Green, of course, has a quick fix: "If we can convince them an American thought of it, the Robertson will take off." Catherine Dawson March writes for The Globe's weekly TV magazine, Globe Television.