Four-In-One Screwdrivers

Seventeen years ago today, 4 in ONE screwdrivers Inc. on Institute Street ceased production and closed its doors. This marked the end of the once thriving, diversified and world-renowned tool manufacturing industry within the city of Jamestown.

4 in ONE screwdrivers were not the first or only ones to feature multiple interchangeable bits, but they were perhaps the most successful and well-known example as well as the most rugged, practical and consistently high quality. There is a patent for a similar idea in 1901 to a William J. Smith in Lowville, N.Y., and we have in our collection a screwdriver with interchangeable bits, not stored in the handle, made in the late 1920s by Burch Tool in Jamestown.

The basic patent for the 4 in ONE as we know it was filed by Algot T. Johnson (1880-1971) of York Street, Jamestown in 1961. Johnson was born in Vastergotland, Sweden. The screwdrivers consisted of a molded thermoplastic handle with a removable shank or tube that snapped into position partly inside the handle but partly protruding out in the work zone. Each end of the shank held a double-ended bit. One bit had standard ends (1/4 in. and 3/16 in.) while the other end had Phillips ends (#1 size and #2). The bits were held in place in the shank by a ball snap mechanism and the shank was held in a sleeve molded into the handle by a similar ball snap mechanism. The result was equivalent to a set of four screwdrivers in a light 7-inch package.

Johnson was a machinist who knew steel. He made the screwdrivers at home and sold them personally. Robert Pearson (died 1974) and his nephew, Frank Simpson (1917-1985), were interested in starting a business. They saw an opportunity so they bought the patent from Johnson, thought up the 4 in ONE name, rented part of the old Broadhead Mill on First Street, and started buying machinery and experimenting with ways of producing the screwdrivers on an industrial scale. Frank’s son, Ronald, came into the business and in 1986 they moved their plant to 33 Institute St. At the peak they were producing 500,000 screwdrivers a year. They employed eight people full time and another five part time.

The screwdrivers represented Jamestown industry in the form of gifts to some prominent people including King Carl of Sweden in 1980 and, when he visited here, Mayor Ed Koch of New York City. The handles were made at Barton Tool in Falconer and initially were a transparent amber color. But in the 1973 oil crisis, one of the necessary ingredients became unavailable. The bright red color was substituted and retained even after the availability problem disappeared.

The bits were made from what is called 8650 tool steel delivered from Buffalo to Farrant Screw Machine in Java Village, N.Y. for initial steps in the manufacturing. The parts then came to the 4 in ONE plant for grinding, milling, and assembly – 37 different operations in all, many of them concerned with the quality control and uniformity for which the brand was famous. All products and parts from the first day to the last were interchangeable. The company had a liberal policy of customer satisfaction and replaced products unquestioningly even is some cases where abuse was humorously evident.

The company did a lot of custom work, making screwdrivers with various firm or organizational names imprinted on the handles. These were used in promotions. They also made a few varieties of stubby screwdrivers and one model with one nonfunctional but safe round end for carrying in a shirt or pants pocket.

Jamestown Container made the combined shipping and display boxes.

The patent expired about the same time that foreign competition was developing. Foreign producers, often using inferior materials and quality short cuts, could sell for less than 4 in ONE’s cost of production. The owners sold the name to Lutz Tool Company of Cincinnati, Ohio which moved production out of town and now has the screwdrivers made in Taiwan. They are currently terminating the 4 in ONE name and product, shifting to six in one.

The Jamestown firm was aware that their products could be used as a nut drivers and presented on that basis as six in one, but the shanks that acted as nut drivers were not made of the same steel and would not stand as much hard use, so the opportunity was not exploited.

My thanks to Ronald Simpson for most of the information used in writing this article.