Saturday, August 29, 2009

Peter Lymburner Robertson's Screwdriver

I had occasion to be working on a project around the house and I came across some screws that needed to be removed from a retractable screen.  Much to my amazement, none of my screwdriver bits would work. It looked like an Allen head, but not hex. 

I went to the local hardware store that carries everything and found out that was a square headed screw.  Further, since the square hole is tapered, it allows for a very secure grip -- one that will not slip and strip the screw head.  Interesting!  I needed to investigate this. Is this a new screw head?

The Robertson appellation was given to me by Canadian Russ McKinnon.  The Internet is amazing. With this information I was able to locate an excellent article by Susanna McLeod about Peter Lymberner Robertson and his Screwdriver. It is so good, in fact, that I include it here in its entirety with permission from the author.

The Invention of the Square-Head Screw and Driver

© Susanna McLeod

From Canadian History @

A mishap led to the invention of the Robertson screw and screwdriver, patented in 1909. The design remains popular: 85% of screws sold in Canada are Robertson's.

There are several versions of the story: Whether he was demonstrating a spring-loaded screwdriver, as mentioned in Mysteries of Canada, or setting up a booth to sell tools, as noted by Canadian Home Workshop, the fact is that Peter Lymburner Robertson cut his hand while he used a regular slot-head screw and screwdriver. The injury was enough to encourage the man to come up with a new device, something that would have a firmer hold and less slippage.

In 1909, Robertson received Canadian patents for his invention of a square-head screw and driver. The design permitted driving “a screw more quickly…,“ said Cool Canada, “and the screw was self-centering so only one hand was needed.” The screwdriver fit better in the head of the screw, so there was less opportunity of sliding out, and less chance of injury.

Competition for Robertson

The competition did not care for Robertson’s invention. The Steel Company of Canada tried to have his patents quashed and “a scathing story about him appeared in a 1910 issue of Saturday Night magazine,” according to the book, I Know That Name! , by Mark Kearney and Randy Ray. Robertson sent his own letter to the editor, and the attempts to overthrow his gains were unsuccessful.

The Robertson screw and screwdriver were hugely popular, seen by manufacturers as a way to speed up production and lessen product damage. Mysteries of Canada mentioned that “The Fisher Body Company, which made wooden bodies in Canada for Ford cars, used four to six gross of Robertson screws in the bodywork of the Model T and eventually Robertson produced socket screws for metal for the metal bodied Model A.” Henry Ford so appreciated the new screw that he wanted a licencing arrangement for control of the time-saving tools. Peter Robertson refused to give up control.

500 People Employed

With his company, Recess Screws Limited, founded in England, Robertson opened a manufacturing facility in Milton, Ontario. At the end of World War II, he employed 500 people in the production of three colour-coded sizes of the Robertson – green for small, red for medium and black for large. (There is now yellow, for very small drivers.) Still remarkably popular, the square-head screw controls 85% of the market in Canada, said Canadian Home Workshop. The Americans are less familiar with the design, but the Robertson's still own 10% of the American market.

Born in 1879, Peter Robertson went from salesman to millionaire with his invention.  A good design that is tough to top, there has been nothing to improve on the Robertson screw since.  Robertson made good use of his fortune, becoming a renowned philanthropist. He died in 1951.


I Know That Name!: The People Behind Canada's Best-Known Brand Names, by Mar Kearney and Randy Ray, published by Dundurn Press 2002. pp 24.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Joseph Priestley House Designation as a National Historic Landmark vs. National Register of Historic Places vs. National Historic Site

Definitions taken from Wikipedia:
National Historic Landmark (NHL) is a buildingsitestructureobject, or district, that is officially recognized by the United States government for its historical significance. All NHLs are listed in theNational Register of Historic Places. Out of more than 80,000 places on the National Register, however, only about 2,430 are NHLs.  [NHLs are not owned by the Federal Government (this is my comment)]

The National Register of Historic Places (National Register) is the United States government's official list of districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects deemed worthy of preservation. Having a property on the National Register makes its owners eligible for tax incentives for expenses incurred preserving the property if they are offered by the local taxing districts.

National Historic Sites are Federally owned and administered [lands]. Some other Federally administered sites are National Historical Parks. There are also about 79,000+ National Register of Historic Places sites, which usually are privately owned, of which about 2400 have further been designated as National Historic Landmark sites.

Joseph Priestley House is owned by the State of Pennsylvania. Consequently, it is not a National Historic Site. It has been designated a National Historic Landmark. 

Now that the Joseph Priestley House has been closed by the State of Pennsylvania I would like to see that the designation for Joseph Priestley House be changed to that of National Historic Site and that the ownership be ceded to the Federal Government to insure that the site is opened to the public and funded at an appropriate level.

The following email was sent to the Department of the Interior today

The Joseph Priestley House in Northumberland PA was closed on August 14, 2009 by the State of Pennsylvania due to budget cuts.

While I understand that Priestley House is owned by the State of Pennsylvania and is designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Park Service, I can only emphasize that this site is a true national treasure and should be designated a National Historic Site.  With that status the U.S. Park Service could provide the support necessary to reopen the House and Museum and make it available once again to the public.

The importance of Joseph Priestley as a part of the national heritage of this country cannot be left to a distant memory. It must be protected and promoted in a manner that only the U.S. Park Service can perform.

Joseph Priestley has already been honored with a U.S. Commemorative Stamp in his honor.  His connection to our founding fathers is profound and his contribution to what we are as a nation is undisputed.

Thank you for your attention.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Latest Proposal on Saving the Priestley House

According to Jan Bowman, Northumberland Borough Secretary, "The Borough Council met last evening [August 18, 2009] with Tom Bresenhan, Co-President of the Friends of the Joseph Priestley House.  This group is negotiating with the State to be permitted to open the Priestley House with volunteers giving tours." 

While I commend both the Borough of Northumberland and the Friends of the Joseph Priestley House for their efforts, this can only be a stopgap effort.  Clearly, the upkeep and development of the site needs full-time skilled professionals that can only be accomplished with sufficient funding. I still feel that making Joseph Priestley House a National Historic Site under the administration of the U.S. Park Service is the only way to insure that the site is properly protected.

According to Mr. Bresenhan the Priestley House already carries the designation of National Historic Landmark (January,.1965) of the U.S. Park Service.

My only real experience with National Historic Sites of the U.S. Park Service is with Weir Farm in Ridgefield, CT. Until Weir Farm was established there were no National Historic Sites or Parks within the state of CT. Once designated, the U.S. Park Service came in with money to provide much of the infrastructure changes needed to handle the staffing, traffic, land acquisition, etc. to bring it up to the standards that they have for any site. I was very impressed with what they did. They did not come in with big bulldozers, so to speak. They  were very sensitive to the needs of the community and the history of the site.

I don't know what the difference between a National Historic Site and National Historic Landmark, but I will investigate this, and I'll bet that it is in that difference that we will find out why the U.S. Park Service has not been as actively involved in the Priestley House.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Further Thoughts About the Closing of Joseph Priestley House

The stamp to the left, which is based upon a painting by Dennis Lyall, of Norwalk, CT, was issued by the United States Postal Service on April 13, 1983 in Northumberland, PA to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Joseph Priestley's birth.  Lyall based his painting of Priestley on an 1801 portrait of Priestley by Rembrandt Peale which is located in the Philosophical Society Library in Philadelphia, PA.

Priestley and his wife, Mary, had settled in Northumberland PA, after immigrating to the United States in 1794 from England.  From 1795 to 1797 they built their house there. Unfortunately, Mary died before the house was completed. Until its closing last week on August 14, the Joseph Priestley House, which is owned by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, had operated as a museum in his honor.  There was a special ceremony at the Priestley House on the day the commemorative stamp was issued.

Joseph Priestley, of course, was the first of a long list of  emigrant scientists celebre to come to the United States to partake of the freedom and liberty enjoyed by our citizens. Priestley was the noted chemist, biologist, theologian, political activist, and educator who had fled England with his family after the Birmingham Riots of 1791 where his house, laboratory and church were burned to the ground in protest of his support of the French and American Revolutions. 

Among other notable accomplishments, Priestley was known for his scientific work in discovering oxygen, nitrogen, ammonia, nitrous oxide (laughing gas), and 5 other gases. He also invented the first method of artificially creating carbonated water or "soda water".  He, additionally, was the first to note that there was a gas cycle wherein plants and animals produced oxygen and carbon dioxide, respectively, to symbiotically support the survival of the other. He wrote the definitive text on electricity which was considered the standard text on the subject for about a century.

Priestley's political writings have been credited as providing Thomas Jefferson with key concepts relative to his expressions of liberty and freedom that are found in the Declaration of Independence. He was a close friend of Benjamin Franklin and corresponded regularly and met with many of the other American Founding Fathers. He was an abolitionist, and a strong supporter of tolerance and equal rights for all. Some have referred to him as the "high priest" of our Founding Fathers.

He was a dissenting minister and wrote many scholarly texts on the history of the Christian Church.  He cofounded Unitarianism in England  also brought that Church to the United States. 

Priestley was an educator and wrote books on various subjects including grammar, history, etc. and developed pedagogical tools that are still in use today.  In fact, he wrote over 150 books which were on a wide diversity of subjects and he believed in the open and free exchange of information for all human endeavors.

While the Priestley House is recognized on the National Register of Historical Places, it is considered, by some, to be a true National Treasure.  The closing of the Priestley House last week is an immeasurable loss for our National Heritage. Please contact your congressional representatives to have them consider converting the Priestley House into a National Historic Site as part of the National Park Service so that it may be properly preserved and opened to the public once again.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Digital Archeology

Digital Archeology is the study of archaic data found in memory devices of earlier digital computers.  It is related to the fields of cryptography and computer forensics.

Think about this problem: You are running a company and you want to change the computer software vendor that you keep your business accounting information on. There must be some old data which you will not convert over to the new system.  Now, further suppose that a number of years after you do this conversion you need to access some information from before the cut off point.  And further suppose that the company that supplied the software has gone out of business.  Now what do you do? 

Well, in case you don't think this is a realistic probability, consider the IRS and the requirement that not only must you maintain your accounting records in tangible paper form, but also, if you maintain electronic records, you must maintain the data in those records in machine readable form for a considerable period of time into the past.  The rationale for this is obvious.

Every day computer data devices are failing and sometimes that information on them is very valuable and sometimes that information is not backed up properly. Or alternatively, a back up has been kept, but for one reason or another it has been destroyed.  There are specialists who will extract information from a disc or other memory device and then reconstruct the original information in a meaningful way.
I think you could easily call this digital archeology.

Now, just imagine, 100 years from now. Will we be able to "read" the data that we are producing today?  Will we be able to see the images and video we are currently producing if it hasn't been "converted" to newer and newer formats along the way?
What about .pdf files? Will those be easily readable?  

Today, if we discover archival material that was produced 100s or even a thousand years ago we most likely have the skill to decipher it.  Will that be the case into the future?  
Alternatively, is there data out there today that was produced 50 years ago that is, for all practicle purposes, undecipherable today.  Look at the Sony "Beta" format for video. I'm sure there are still functioning units around, but for how long will they be around?

Should we, as a society, be taking steps now that will insure that digital data produced today and into the future will remain intelligible?

I'd like to hear from anyone who has something to say about this.
Please comment or contact me.

The Comptometer of Felt & Tarrant and Their Rival -- Burroughs

The most authoritative website on Comptometers, if you are interested, is run by Brooke Boering. Here is the link: Comptometers  Brooke actually worked for The Felt & Tarrant Co., the manufacturers of the Comptometer, in Chicago, briefly, as a service technician. That was a long long time ago. The history of the company until its demise is quite interesting. At one point they merged with the Victor Company, which also made calculators.  Eventually, all these companies making mechanical computing devices were superceded by companies making modern day computers.  You can find all this information on Brooke's website.

I have two Felt & Tarrant Comptometers:
The first is a model H, serial #221922, last patent date Nov. 2 1920, 8 columns, green painted metal (copper), with black metal cover, manufactured in the early 20's and then apparently refurbished and painted green in England after World War II (that is to distinguish it from one's manufactured in the U.S.).
The second is serial #802, last patent date Dec. 15 1891, 8 columns, mahogany wood case (see picture above), overall dimensions of the case is 19 cm wide, 36.7 cm deep, and 10.8 cm high. This is not including the 72 keys protruding from the top an additional 3 cm, and the lever mechanism on the right protruding 1.5 cm. This specific Comptometer serial number is listed as the 21st oldest known machine on Brooke's Comptometer website above.
I also have some Comptometer ancillary collectables that I have still to unpack. I will add information on those items when they pop up.

In addition to the Comptometers above I have a number of other (competitor) machines of this type.

The Burroughs Adding Machine Company had a very interesting machine that was developed at about the same time as the Comptometer, but it only performed addition.

I call it my "windows" machine because it has large beveled plate glass windows on three sides so that you can see the mechanism inside. It is a beautiful machine. 

I also have the very rare Burroughs shoebox calculator, serial # 204171, manufactured in 1912. This was issued by Burroughs to compete with the Felt and Tarrant Compometer. 

 It performed identical computations as the Comptometer and even had the same external look to it.  There was a very interesting legal fight between these two giants that ensued as a result of the introduction of the Burroughs "shoebox".  See this webpage about the legal battle to remove these machines from the marketplace Felt & Tarrant v. Burroughs.  As a result of the litigation all of these original Burroughs "shoebox" comptometers were ordered removed from the market and destroyed.   There are very few remaining.

As a follow-on to the ill fated Burroughs "shoebox" which was removed from the market Burroughs introduced yet another calculating machine of which I also have an example of:


I first met Brooke Boering at the home of Bob Otnes in Palo Alto many years ago.  I spoke to Brooke yesterday.  While the website is still functioning, Brooke informed me that he is not actively working on it much these days.  He has donated his collection of Felt & Tarrant machines and associated materials  to the Felt Mansion/Estate for display.  Due to his age, his activities have been more restricted lately.  We all wish him well.
All photos above are courtesy of Brooke Boering.

Friday, August 14, 2009

State of Pennsylvania Closes the Joseph Priestley House in Northumberland

It was with great sadness that I learned today that the State of Pennsylvania closed the Joseph Priestley House.  As reported by News Radio WKOK:

Friday, August 14, 2009

Pennsylvania closes the Joseph Priestley House in Northumberland

NORTHUMBERLAND – The Joseph Priestley House in Northumberland closed its doors at 3:00  p.m. today.  Co-president of the Friends of the Joseph Priestley House, Tom Bresenhan, tells us the state made the announcement Thursday.  He says they were told the museum would close and their director Andrea Bashore, would be furloughed.  Bresenhan says they hope the closure will be a temporary one.  The Friends of the Joseph Priestley House has submitted a plan to the state to continue to keep the sight open on a limited basis.  Probably on afternoons and weekends, they hope to have volunteers operating the site, with the facility still owned by the state. 

Bresenhan says they were expecting this step to be taken by the state, with no budget passed and four of the six identified sites, including the Priestley House closed their doors today.  (Ali Stevens) 

If you would like some additional information on the Priestley House you may click on the Joseph Priestley House Index Tab on the left side of this page.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Otis King's Cylindrical Slide Rule

This is a stock photo of an OK. I will insert a photo of mine later

I just opened the latest issue of the Journal of the Oughtred Society.  This issue has a picture of an Otis King (OK) slide rule on the cover. I have to unpack mine and take some pictures. I think the most interesting Otis King that I have is the Model N.  It is an early production serial #8365 with the holder 422 scale and the cylinder 424 scale. It is an all chrome plated model with white numbers on a black background scales. It came in a coffin case with the Holburn Viaduct address inside the lid. Mine is in very good condition. According to the JOS article this month it looks like there are three other Model Ns that have been recorded in the literature. However, according to the Dick Lyons table of OKs (Click here).  I found 11 type Ns listed with two of those being white numbers on a black background.

I remember when I bought this OK in Denver at a store on "Antique Row" on South Broadway about 15 years ago. I think the store was called the "Packrat".  I was in Denver doing some forensic work for a client located downtown and had some time to kill between meetings.  I had heard there was one antique store on South Broadway that specialized in scientific instruments.  The store was crammed full of gadgets. There were many pieces of surveying equipment or other pieces related to the mining industry. I can highly recommend it if the store is under the same management.  Prices were a bit steep there. It has been a long time and Ebay wasn't really around then.   I knew this particular OK was different than most of the other OKs that I had seen up to that point. Much has been published about OKs in the literature since then. My suspicion was well founded.  There is something about an OK in the way it feels and moves as you operate it that is very satisfying compared to many other slide rules.