The All-Canadian Screwdriver

July 13, 2017

Visit any Canadian hardware store and you’ll find it alongside the slot and the Phillips screwdrivers. Then, next time you’re in the U.S., stop at a hardware store there, and tell a salesperson you’re looking for a Robertson screwdriver. There’s a great Canadian story behind the blank stare you’ll receive. Here it is.

Back around 1908, inventor Peter Lymburner Robertson was in downtown Montreal, demonstrating a spring-loaded screwdriver. The blade slipped from the screw-slot and cut his hand. But beyond injuring Robertson, the accident inspired him. He soon invented a safer, square-headed screw—and a screwdriver designed for it. He called it the “recess screw,” but it would come to be known as the Robertson.

The Robertson screw fit its screwdriver more tightly than a standard slot screw, reducing the chance of the screwdriver slipping out. It could be driven faster, and with one hand. Industry recognized the advantages immediately: it sped up production, and resulted in less product damage. That’s remains the case today.

The same year, P. L. Robertson established a business in Milton, Ontario. It’s still there. By 1950, his Canadian workforce peaked at close to 600 employees.

By 1912, Robertson gained another huge advantage: he was granted an international patent on his screw and screw-making machinery. This opened worldwide markets.

He opened a factory in England, which obtained lucrative military contracts during the First and Second World Wars. By 1919, 400 people worked there.

Then he tried to enter the U.S. market, but could not reach an agreement with the screw company in Buffalo he approached. Meanwhile, in Canada, the Ford Motor Company in Windsor was one of his biggest accounts. By using Robertson screws, Ford saved $2.60 per car. This gained the attention of Ford’s Detroit bosses, and P.L was soon in Detroit to expand his production to supply all U.S.-made Fords. But Henry Ford refused to commit to a new product line without having a say in how and where the screws would be made. And P. L. refused to go along, effectively ending his relationship with Ford—and his opportunity in the United States.

Ironically, Robertson Inc. has been American owned since 1968, currently by The Marmon Group/Berkshire Hathaway Company. It manufactures in China, and is one of Canada’s largest suppliers of quality fasteners. Its original, Milton, Ontario location still serves as its head office and distribution centre. And most Americans still don’t know what a Robertson screw, or screwdriver, is.

Happy 150th to all who know and love the Robertson screwdriver!