This article originally appeared in The Chronicle, Vol. 49 No. 1 March 1996
Spiral Screwdrivers of Decatur, Illinois
Clifford D. Fales
The availability of better woodscrews and the rise of the factory system in the last quarter of the nineteenth century saw a proliferation of patents for more efficient tools for driving screws. Isaac Allard’s spiral screwdriver patent of 1868 began a succession of some fifty spiral screwdriver patents before 1900. Additional patents for ratchet screwdrivers and screwholding screwdrivers give an indication of the demand for this type of tool. Decatur, Illinois was a location which was prominent in the development of these tools during this period of time.
The Decatur Coffin Company spiral screwdrivers and the often-told story about undertakers needing only a clockwise screwdriver are both familiar to many tool collectors. However, there is more to the Decatur story than this one frequently seen spiral screwdriver and the story commonly associated with it.
Christopher H. Olson
While only the patent date of October 7, 1884 is usually seen on the Decatur Coffin Co. screwdrivers, C. H. Olson, the patent holder, actually held four patents for spiral screwdrivers.
The most prevalent model, marked DECATUR COFFIN COMPANY / DECATUR, ILL’S / PAT. OCT. 7, 1884, is actually based on the third of four spiral screwdriver patents granted to Christopher H. Olson of Decatur (Figure 1). It is most commonly seen in the 12″ size but also is seen in a smaller 8″ size. This model will also be observed with at least three different handle styles (Figures 2A, 2B, 3 & 4). Advertising and catalog illustrations designated this screwdriver variously as the Olson patent, The Eureka Screwdriver or The Decatur Coffin Co. Screwdriver. While it is known that C. H. Olson was a member of the Board of Directors of the Decatur Coffin Co.1, the fact that he invented and perfected this screwdriver would seem to indicate that he also was significantly involved in the production processes in the factory.
A significant feature of the construction of this spiral screwdriver which sets it apart from all but a few other designs is the fact that the shaft derives its rotary motion from grooves cut on the inside of the tube into which the shaft telescopes, rather than machined in the shaft as is the case with most spiral screwdrivers.
Olson’s October, 1884 patent was only the fifth for a spiral screwdriver which provided a mechanical means to allow the bit to remain in a stationary position while the handle is withdrawn for the next driving stroke. Others most notably the A. H. Reid patent number 268,938 of December 12, 1882 had some provision for this purpose but it was not an automatic mechanical release and required an adjustment of hand position or release of a lock for the return stroke. The Allard/Howard based on the Isaac Allard’s patent number 157,087 of November 24, 1874 and the Decatur Coffin based on Olson’s October, 1884 patent were apparently the first spiral screwdrivers using a mechanical release to gain widespread acceptance.
A warning to collectors: Many handles seen on the Decatur Coffin Co. screwdrivers are not original. A wide variety of owner-made, retro-fitted handles will be found. Although three original Decatur Coffin Co. handle styles are identified here, there are others which have strong indications of also being original. This is a subject which will benefit from further study.
Olson’s First Patent
The first spiral screwdriver patent of C. H. Olson was number 278,261 granted on May 22, 1883 (Figure 5). The patent illustration shows a tool which would have been unusually long and unwieldy to use. Judging by the relationship of the size of the slide handle and bit to the length of the entire tool, this tool would in all likelihood have been over thirty inches in length. The patent text indicates that one stroke normally is sufficient to drive a screw with this tool. This model has not been observed and it is certainly doubtful if it was produced commercially.
Olson’s Bi-Directional Patent
Probably the most interesting part of this story is that Olson’s second patent number 301,915, granted on July 15, 1884