Friday, November 2, 2012

Vanished Tool Makes: Reed & Prince/Frearson

Mervin J. McGuffin.  Automotive Mechanics.  Principles and Operation.  Toronto:  The Macmillan Co of Canada Ltd., 1962.
This story is an international one, involving a British inventor and an American manufacturing company.

John Frearson was a British inventor, engineer and manufacturer in Birmingham, England.  He patented hooks and eyes for women's skirts, exhibiting this invention at the Great Exhibition of 1851.  Frearson later designed a cruciform screw head similar to the Phillips used today, but with a more pointed 75° V shape. In July 1857, he was granted a British patent on this idea.  He re-patented it in Britain in 1870 (Patent No. 1971), and subsequently in the US in 1873 and in Canada  (Patent No. 5950) in 1876.   

His U.S. patent describes the major advantages of his cross-head screw:

"It is well known to persons who use screws that if the nicks are narrow and shallow it is difficult to drive the screw without the screw driver slipping out of the nicks, and if the nicks are wide and deep to afford a good gripe, the head of the screw is weakened, and the screw-driver is liable to slip out sidewise and deface the finished surface of the work, and if the screw-driver is the same width as or wider than the head of the screw, the countersink work is liable to be defaced, and the angles of the screw-driver are often broken.  By the use of screws constructed according to my invention, these inconveniences are prevented or diminished."

In 1878, he successfully defended his patent in a British court.  In 1884, he patented further improvements on his design in the US, rounding the corners where the two slots (or "nicks") crossed each other.

Now to the American side of the story. Little seems known about how the American company Reed and Prince came to be the sole purveyors of his screws.  (I emailed a query to them, but unsurprisingly got nothing back.) According to the Reed & Prince website, the company traces its beginnings to 1886 when Edgar Reed began making tacks, nails and brads in his shop in Worcester, MA.  Other sources give the founding date for the company as 1897.  

Somewhere along the line, they obtained the license to exclusively market Frearson's screw type, which they sold under their own company name and under several clever trademarks:
Reed & Prince 1962 trademark

Reed & Prince 1968 trademark
Because, in Frearson's design, the tool recess is a perfect cross, drivers do not easily cam-out of the screw as they do on Phillips screws (which were not patented until 1933 by J.P. Thompson, from whom Phillips bought the patent).  Also, unlike Phillips screws, Frearson's screws required only one screwdriver, no matter what the size of the screw.  As a result, the Reed & Prince brass screws found an enthusiastic welcome among wooden boat builders, and were much in demand beginning in the 1930's but finally tailing off in the 1970's.   (In 1986, Reed and Prince  was acquired by Elco Industries of Rockford, Illinois.  The company now bills itself as "The Quality Fastener Company" and is located in Leominster, MA.  They no longer make Reed and Prince screws.)

It's not clear how much John Frearson profited from his invention.  It would seem that, by the time Reed and Prince were producing screws, he must have been long dead.  By all accounts, he was a progressive employer, introducing the Saturday half-day.  He was active in social politics and wrote various tracts on the topic.  His second wife operated a temperance hotel.  As a fascinating aside, before the invention of his screw-head Frearson allegedly had a stint in show business, briefly managing Jean Joseph Brice, better known as the "French Giant," when this 7-foot 6.5-inch  individual was being exhibited in Scotland in 1862.  Frearson petitioned the Sherrif of Elgin when showing Brice in Scotland:
“… praying his Lordship to grant interdict against Jean Joseph Brice, commonly called the “French Giant”, from exhibiting himself in any other manner than that stipulated in a bond of agreement entered into between the petitioner and respondent for one year from 28 of March last. The breach of agreement … was committed … by the Giant’s looking out at a window in the City Hotel, in which he was residing, and while going between the hotel and the Concert Hall, the place of exhibition. … the Giant had become bound to exhibit himself every lawful day between the hours of two and nine P.M., …. And for this was to receive £15 per week.”

Photos of the French Giant from The Tallest Man.

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