America’s most famous tool was invented here

The next time you reach for a pipe wrench, you might want to consider that you owe a debt of gratitude to Daniel Stillson. He was an engineer at the Boston company, J.J. Walworth Manufacturing, and invented the Stillson wrench in 1869. Some 150 years after he helped revolutionize plumbing, modern-day versions of Stillson’s ubiquitous tool remain virtually unchanged.

A recent Boston Globe article written by Michael Fitzgerald featured the Stillson wrench. Bearing the headline, “The best local invention we’ve forgotten,” Fitzgerald traced the tool’s development. He indicated that the wrench gained such currency, people referred to it generically as a “Stillson,” much the same way that we use the term “Google” today. According to the writer, it became America’s most famous tool.

Stillson did not invent the first adjustable wrench. Credit for that goes to Solyman Merrick of Springfield, Massachusetts, who, in 1835, patented a wrench with jaws that could be moved by turning a screw. What Stillson did was add angled teeth to the jaws and make the head loose. Those two innovations enabled his wrench to more firmly grip metal pipes, which were replacing wooden pipes in the plumbing trade. The versatile tool allowed plumbers to work with a variety of pipes and fasteners, including ones that were worn. Because of its flexibility, plumbers could replace whole sets of fixed wrenches with a single Stillson.

According to Fitzgerald, “In the mid-19th century, there was no more exciting place to work in the plumbing industry than Boston.” In addition to the Stillson wrench, the Walworth company also developed the concept of steam heating systems and manufactured the Walworth radiator. The Trimont Company, based in Roxbury from 1902 to 1954, was also known for its wrenches as well as other pipefitting tools.

Following the conventions of the day, when Stillson brought the prototype of his wrench to his bosses at Walworth for consideration, they insisted that the inventor apply for the patent and own the tool. Through a licensing arrangement with the Boston company to manufacture and sell the wrench, Stillson earned fees estimated at $100,000 throughout the course of his life. That’s equivalent to $3 million in 2020.

Walworth relocated to Texas in the 1950s and then to Mexico in the 1970s. After the patent expired, other companies issued their own versions of the Stillson.

Interestingly, Walworth’s factory was located in Cambridge in a building that had previously housed a horse-drawn carriage manufacturer. Later, Edwin Land bought the building and used it to develop his Polaroid instant camera. Today, MIT owns the space and runs a company known as the Engine there. It welcomes tech startups in the energy, biotech, and manufacturing fields.

Who knows? One of them may develop something as game changing as the Stillson wrench.