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Mechanic's Tools and Their Makers

  The Ratchet Screwdriver by Trevor Robinson  1 of 3   

The ratchet screwdriver is a useful and common component of most every tool kit, and its design has become pretty well standardized. 

When did it first appear and who was responsible for its invention and later refinements?  The ratchet mechanism itself is ancient and has been used in a variety of devices to allow one-way rotary motion. 

Ratchet screwdrivers first appeared early in the second half of the Nineteenth Century. Then, over a period of about seventy-five years, about five dozen different designs were patented. 


Trevor Robinson

Not all of these went into commercialization, of course, but more did than one might expect.  Parallel to development of simple ratchet screwdrivers was development of so-called “automatic” or “Archimedean” screwdrivers; and there were many of them, too, some considered in an article by Cliff Fales1,2.

Salaman’s  Dictionary of Tools  states that the ratchet screwdriver was an American invention. 

Apparently the first U. S. Patent for a ratchet screwdriver went to G. H. Talbot of Boston in 1858 (Fig. 1).

Figure 1.  Talbot's patent of 1858

His claim says, “Improved Ratchet Mechanism for Screwdrivers,” which implies that the idea of a ratchet screwdriver was not original with him, but only its improvement. 

In the same year Oliver Bond of Buffalo patented a screwdriver design that incorporated a ratchet (No. 20,619); but he says, “I make no claim to ratchet wheels or cog gearing or spring, when used in connation with tool handles.”  These two patentee statements suggest that in some form ratchet screwdrivers were already in use, but apparently not patented before 18582.

No more patents on this device were issued until 1874, when G. P. Loomis was issued No. 147,059 and W. S. Kyle was issued No. 149,587.  In 1876 and 1878 there were patents to, respectively, D. C. Richards - No. 176,811 and R. Munroe - No. 200,747.  I do not know if any of these tools were actually produced.

Then in 1878 the best-known of all the early ratchet screwdrivers came on the scene in a patent issued to G. E. Gay of Augusta, Maine (No. 210,942, Fig. 2).

Figure 2.  G. E. Gay's patent of 1878

A lot of them must have been made, and they are not especially rare today, being sold by antique tool dealers for about $50. What is less known is that Gay patented three other ratchet screwdrivers over the next 24 years, one of them in partnership with J. H. Parsons, also of Augusta, Maine. It does not appear that any of these had the success of the first one.

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