Uncovering the origins of a toolbox requisite
All right students, today’s column starts off with a quiz. What do linoleum, kerosene, super glue, escalators, cellophane, zippers, Xerox copies and crescent wrenches have in common? Give up? All those well-known product names were once – and many still are – registered trademarks for a specific brand. Today, they’re known and used widely as generic names for familiar products, but can be made by many manufacturers.
This column is about the ubiquitous Crescent wrench – which should actually be called an adjustable wrench – found in the toolbox of virtually every rusty iron lover, mechanic and farmer. In fact, many ‘complete’ tool kits consist of a pair of pliers, a screwdriver and a Crescent wrench that doubles as a hammer.
The origins of the adjustable wrench are unclear, but several Americans and two Swedes were definitely involved in its development.
One of the earliest records that mentions such a wrench is a patent issued in May 1852 to Andrew Hotchkiss of Sharon, Conn. The Hotchkiss wrench looks very much like the monkey wrench, often found at flea markets and antique shops.
In December 1856, Orin O. Witherall of New York City patented a peculiar wrench. It sported a movable jaw fastened to a tenon that slid through a mortise in the other jaw, and was clamped in place by an eccentric lever on the handle.
On June 9, 1857, Edward J. Worcester from Worcester, Mass., patented what he called an ‘Improved Screw-Wrench.’ Worcester claimed in the patent application that, ‘My wrench by having a rack and screw to operate its jaw and a handle stationary relatively to the stationary jaw presents advantages over (Witherall’s patent), as the movable jaw can be better supported and the handle being in one piece with the stationary jaw is not so liable to break or separate from the same as when it acts as a lever and turns on a fulcrum attached to each jaw.’
In 1832, a 28-year-old ‘mekanicus,’ Johan Theofron Munktell, started a workshop in Eskilstuna, Sweden. There he built Sweden’s first weaving loom, first mowing machine, first steam loco-motive and the country’s first steam traction engine.
Another innovator, Johan Fetter Johansson, worked at the Munktell factory during the 1870s and early 1880s as a riveter’s assistant, machine adjuster and traveling fitter. While working as a fitter – otherwise known as a machinery repairman – Johansson crisscrossed the Swedish countryside and repaired traction engines and threshers. All the nuts and bolts used on the machines were handmade in the Munktell factory, so sizes varied. That meant Johansson had to carry a heavy, wooden toolbox to hold all the different-sized spanners (as wrenches are called in Europe) he might need.
Johansson left the Munktell factory in 1886 and started his own machine shop. He pondered the spanner problem for several years and was eventually awarded a Swedish patent for an adjustable wrench in May 1892. This first attempt featured two sliding jaws that moved closer together or farther apart with a central screw. The design was unstable, and the jaws were easily broken. Yet, a second design was patented the following January that looks almost identical to today’s Crescent wrench.
J.P. Johansson sold the patent to Bernt A. Hjorth, who owned a Stockholm tool and machinery factory that later became Bahco, presently part of Snap-On Tools, Inc. Bahco claims that more than 100 million of its wrenches sold worldwide since production began.
The origin of the Crescent wrench in America is a little unclear. One account says a Swedish immigrant, Gunnard Oberg, invented an adjustable head wrench about the turn of the 20th century while working for the Anderson Machine Shop in Jamestown, N.Y. A man with the Swedish-sounding name of Karl Peterson visited the Anderson shop, saw the wrench and paid Oberg $500 for the invention.
Peterson named the tool the Crescent Wrench, after he decided the rounded head and jaws of the wrench looked like a crescent moon. In 1907, he started the Crescent Tool Co. in Jamestown to manufacture the new tool.
Another story says that Peterson worked for William Hjorth & Co. before starting the Crescent Tool Co. Peterson was awarded a patent in 1915 for an improvement on Edward Worcester’s original 1857 design, and the new tool was called the Crescent wrench because the Crescent Tool Co. first made the wrench.
Regardless of how Peterson came up with the idea, or where the name originated, the Crescent wrench – or the look-alike Bahco wrench – is a necessity in almost every tool-box around the globe. Legend has it that Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic in 1927 with only gasoline, sandwiches, a bottle of water, pliers and a single Crescent wrench. Richard Byrd reportedly took along a set of Crescent wrenches when he attempted to reach the South Pole in 1929. On March 23, 1965, when Gus Grissom and John Young took the first manned Gemini flight into space, a couple of Crescent wrenches went along for the historic ride.
The Crescent Tool Co. is still in business, although it’s now part of Cooper Industries, and still manufactures Crescent wrenches and other hand tools.
The next time you reach for a Crescent or Bahco wrench – or any of the many copies now manufactured -thank the crafty Swedes and Americans who helped create this handy and indispensable farm tool. FC
– Sam Moore became interested in agricultural machinery growing up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items.