A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Why did this guy Phillips think we needed a new type of screw?

November 24, 1989

Dear Cecil:

Why did Mr. Phillips invent a new type of head for screws? Was he bored? Do Phillips-head screws have any advantage over the standard slot-type screw? Or was Phillips just trying to invent a market he could corner?

Cecil replies:

So many opportunities for rude puns, Roger. I must be strong. Actually, Phillips screws have many advantages, most of which I am personally acquainted with, having once had a job repairing power tools. (Cecil has had quite the varied career.) Unfortunately, none of these advantages is of much use to Joe Handyman, who typically regards Phillips screws as a first-class pain in the butt, owing to their propensity to strip out at the least provocation. But more on this directly.

To engage the cross-shaped indentation in the head of a Phillips screw you need a Phillips screwdriver (you probably guessed this), whose pointed tip makes it self-centering. This is helpful when you're using a power screwdriver, which is the reason the Phillips screw was invented: it lends itself to assembly-line screwing, so to speak.

The inventor of the Phillips screw was Henry F. Phillips, a businessman from Portland, Oregon, who obviously had a lot of time on his hands. (I learn this, incidentally, from a delightful article on the Phillips screw that appeared in the Wall Street Journal.) Henry knew that power screwdrivers don't work well with ordinary slot screws because (1) you waste precious seconds trying to fit the screwdriver into the damn slot; (2) once you succeed, centrifugal force tends to make the bit slide off the screw and into the workbench; and even if you avoid this, (3) when the screw gets as far in as it's going to go, the power screwdriver either stalls, strips out the screw, or starts to spin around in your hand.

A Phillips screwdriver, however, has a pointed tip. Get it anywhere in the general vicinity of the screw and it engages as if by magic, and what's more, stays engaged. Furthermore, the cross-shaped indentation in the screw is so shallow that when you're done the screwdriver pops right out, before you get into trouble. Cecil found this handy fixing power tools, and back in the 1930s Henry Phillips thought the automakers would find it handy making cars. The automakers were no brighter then than now, but eventually realized the usefulness of Henry's device, and it's been with us ever since.

The only problem is, easy as they are to get in, Phillips screws can be a bitch to get back out. The screwdriver pops out too readily, stripping the screw, gouging the work, and in general transferring to Joe Handyman all the problems that were formerly the province of the assembly line. Once again, in other words, the little guy gets shafted by the dehumanizing forces of capitalism. The only solution, socialism obviously being in decline, is to buy a power screwdriver of your own. You can't beat 'em, join 'em.

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