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A Brief History of Fasteners

A Brief History of Fasteners

Published by Rusty Spanner on May 3rd 2024

Come and join BelMetric–the masters of metric fasteners–on a journey that spans the globe across recorded history. We’ll begin in the fertile crescent at the dawn of humanity, make stops along the way in ancient Greece, the Italy of the Renaissance, and the United States in its earliest days, ending in modern day Massachusetts. All to better understand the story of fasteners and how we got here.

So fasten your seatbelts: it’s going to be an interesting ride.

IN THE BEGINNING…

Like many of the earliest developments in civilization, historians are unsure exactly when humans began using fasteners. However, the six ‘simple machines’ include the wheel and axle, which requires a fastener to function. The first known use of a wheel and axle happened in Sumer, an ancient civilization in Mesopotamia, during the Bronze Age. And Greek mathematician Archimedes famously advanced the development of the screw with his irrigation system.

Diagram of Archimedes screw

Fasteners continued to play an important role through history, earning mentions in the Bible, Homer’s “The Odyssey” and the works of Shakespeare. Johannes Gutenberg used screws to build his groundbreaking printing press, and in between producing artistic masterpieces like the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, Renaissance wunderkind Leonardo Da Vinci sketched diagrams for a screw cutting machine in his notebook.

HAVE SOME STANDARDS! - ELI WHITNEY AND  INTERCHANGEABILITY

Although fasteners were pivotal, they differed from today’s nuts and bolts in one key area: they were bespoke solutions. Individual nuts and bolts were designed to interlock only with each other, and thus replacement parts could not be substituted. This began to change by necessity at the onset of the Industrial Revolution.

An oft-told story credits Eli Whitney–the noted inventor of the cotton gin–with quickening the push towards standardization. Whitney had secured a contract to provide the United States government with 10,000 guns over the course of two years.

Engraving-style portrait of Eli Whitney

What Whitney lacked in gunsmithing experience, he made up for in gumption. He spent his time developing his factory and failed to produce a single firearm. When he went to Washington to get a time extension, he wowed the powers that be by constructing 10 muskets from piles of interchangeable parts and sowing the seeds for a country soon to be swept by mass production.

LONDON CALLING: HENRY MAUDSLAY AND JOSEPH WHITWORTH

Similar advances occurred across the pond as well. On the outskirts of London toiled a toolmaker named Henry Maudslay, who the Industrial Fastener Institute recognizes as “the father of the modern threaded fastener.” In 1800, Maudslay introduced a new screw-cutting lathe, which allowed for the production of screws with a chosen diameter and pitch, all created with mechanical accuracy.

Diagram of Henry Maudslay's screw-cutting lathe

An employee of Maudslay’s named Joseph Whitworth would also leave his mark on the fastener world. Whitworth proposed a screw thread standard that could be adopted throughout Britain to end the variations between manufacturers. His paper “The Uniform System of Screw Threads” suggested that the angle between threads be 55°, and a specified number of threads for any given diameter. His system also provided a standardized pitch, or the distance between each individual thread. Thanks to the British railway system conforming to Whitworth’s specifications, the British Standard Whitworth was used across the country.

BACK IN THE U.S.: WILLIAM SELLERS

William Sellers was inspired by Whitworth’s work, but also critical of it: he suggested changes and developed what eventually became the Sellers system. While Sellers agreed that the angles between threads should be uniform, he determined that 60° would be stronger. Also, his thread headings had flattened pyramid tops, as opposed to Whitworth’s rounded tops–this ensured better interlocking with mating nuts. Collectively, these changes made the screws stronger, as well as easier and less expensive to produce. His system of screw threading found favor in the railroad industry, as well as the United States Navy; eventually, the government adopted it as a national standard.

Photograph of railroad wheels held together by fasteners

The mass production of fasteners also afforded a new business opportunity for enterprising entrepreneurs. Connecticut became an initial hotspot for fastener suppliers: Rugg & Barnes, the A.P. Plant Company, as well as the Russell, Burdsall and Ward Bolt and Nut Company all opened there during the 1840s. Similar businesses soon spread across the burgeoning country, with many companies choosing to base their operations in Cleveland, which, to this day, remains a center of industry within the fastener market.

LIFE DURING WARTIME: THE UNIFIED THREAD STANDARD

Although the Revolutionary War officially separated the United States and England, another armed conflict would reunite them 150 years later. The two countries were allied during World War I, and the incompatibility of American and British parts became apparent, but this discrepancy was ignored after the war ended.

The issue persisted during World War II and the US issued a stopgap measure to remedy the problems during active combat. But throughout the 1940s, American, British and Canadian officials convened for a series of summits, culminating in the Unified Thread Standard (UTS). The UTS combined elements of the standards developed by Whitworth and Sellers, opting for the latter’s 60° thread specification.

ALL THINGS BEING ISO: THE INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATION FOR STANDARDIZATION

While the UTS was a major step forward for standardization, it only accounted for imperial, or inch, based measurements. Around the same time, a group called the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) began working on a similar proposal for metric based fasteners. In 1964, their work resulted in two new standards: ISO Metric and ISO Inch, the latter of which adheres to the same principles as UTS.

International Organization for Standardization (ISO) logo

ISO aims to be truly international, including its name: instead of having different acronyms in various languages, the group chose the three-letter abbreviation of ISO, derived from the Greek term meaning “equal.” And while ISO was designed to be a worldwide standard bearer, one of its national counterparts remains popular in the metric fastener domain.

DIN is an acronym for Deutsches Institut für Normung, which translates to “German Institute for Standardization” For many years DIN was the most reliable and recognized standard for metric fasteners, so many manufacturers and distributors will still list DIN along with the ISO equivalent.

BELMETRIC: THE MASTERS OF METRIC FASTENERS

But perhaps the most exciting development in fastener history came in 1976. As America was celebrating its bicentennial, a man named Ralph bought an old mail truck, filled it with metric fasteners, put the name “BelMetric” across the side and started making the rounds to local automotive dealerships.

BelMetric founder Ralph stands in front of BelMetric truck in vintage photo

While maintaining a stronghold in the automotive industry, BelMetric has expanded to supply fields like construction, marine, and solar/renewable energy, in addition to others. BelMetric’s mission is to empower consumers of metric fasteners to easily source quality items in any quantity. Nearly 50 years later, this is why the team at BelMetric are the masters of metric fasteners.