Bit History: The Flathead

This is the first article in our new, ongoing series of posts on the history of screwdriver bits. We’ll be posting one a day leading up to the launch of our Manta Driver Kit and Mahi Driver Kit on Tuesday, April 24.

When I was 19 and heading off to UC Santa Cruz for an ill-advised venture into alternative living and experimental American literature, my father—an intimidatingly capable man with the kind of broad shoulders and booming baritone that people find reassuring—handed me a pink toolbox. It contained a set of wrenches, a few pliers, and two screwdrivers. With that, he patted me affectionately on the head and scooted me off into the world, confident that a handful of tools and a good command of the English language were all I needed to survive my first foray into adulthood.

For two years, the toolbox sat in the corner of my over-priced, over-crowded apartment—right by the water heater, which I’m pretty sure should have been enclosed (but wasn’t). When something broke in the apartment, I would pull out the pink box, fumble past the wrenches, and grab the fat-handled drivers.

They were hefty and reassuring, like my Pops. As an added bonus, they were particularly well-suited to the clumsy, imprecise young woman into which I was blooming. I didn’t know their names at the time, but the two drivers that my father saw fit to equip me with were the Phillips and the flathead.

I preferred the flathead.

The flathead was as blessedly imprecise as I was. Screws tumbled from its grip or slipped from their slot. I nearly maimed myself a few times. But what the flathead lacked in elegance, it made up for in resolve. With enough effort, angling, and brute force, many screws (slotted or not) will submit themselves to rotation by a flathead driver. The screw always comes out worse for the wear. The flathead, on the other hand, remains stolid and unyielding as a Dickensian clergyman.

That’s what I like about it. The flathead is unapologetically utilitarian. Which makes sense—because of all the drivers, it’s apparently the oldest. It’s gone by many names over the years: the standard, the common blade, the flat-blade, the slot-head, the straight, the flat-tip, and, of course, the “flat-head.” Though Wikipedia tersely informs me that “flathead” is a stupid name for the bit because the flathead doesn’t have a flat head, at all—the screw does. (Whatever, Wikipedia. I don’t tell you how to live.)

Flathead screwdriver

A quarter-millennia or so ago, though, the flathead was called the screw-turner (Schraubendreher in German) or the turn-screw (tournevis in French). That’s when the name starting turning up in books, though early mentions are few and far between. Witold Rybczynski, author of One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw, even found an illustration from 1765 of a short-bladed, slot-head screwdriver—not too different from the one Pops sent me off to college with.

“I’m not sure what I expected, but I’m disappointed that the tool resembles an ordinary modern screwdriver,” Rybczynski writes.

As a woman who appreciates consistency, I’m not disappointed at all. In a time when car models evolve past recognition in a matter of years, there’s a certain comfort in knowing that something can go centuries without changing at all.

Image from a 1922 Goodell-Pratt Company’s Complete Catalog, in the Public Domain.

Of course, Rybczynski’s 1765 illustration didn’t depict the first screwdriver. It’s not even a particularly early one. Screws (and they were very often slotted screws) date back much earlier. Rybczynski found mention of the slotted screw in a technological treatise from 1588, in a book on metallurgy from 1556, and depicted on a pair of manacles in an illustration from the late 1400s. Slotted screws also held together guns and kept armor from shaking apart as early as the 1480s. And where there are screws, there are drivers.

A Natural History of Screwdrivers
You can see the flathead screws on this pair of Wheellock Pistols with Matching Priming Flask/Spanner from ca. 1570–80. Image in the Public Domain.

The flathead screwdriver is, in a word, old.

Of course, it’s possible that many of the first flathead screwdrivers weren’t screwdrivers at all. In a pinch, lots of things—a knife or a coin—can stand in for a flathead. In the Middle Ages, a dedicated screwdriver would have been a specialty item—but then, so were screws. Unlike nails, which were cheap and easy to make, screws took a lot of time, expense, and skill for a craftsman to mold from metal.

All that eventually changed. In the late 1700s, demand for screws increased. Then, the machines took over. By the mid-1800s, British machines manufactured cheap slotted screws by the boatload. And the slotted screwdriver became a necessity. Of course, not long after that, most folks realized that if the slotted screw was a workhorse—it was a workhorse that was kind of lame.

Rybczynski explains, “slotted screws have several drawbacks. It is easy to ‘cam out,’ that is, to push the screwdriver out of the slot; the result is often damage to the material that is being fastened or injury to one’s fingers—or both.”

Afterwards came the historical avalanche of different screw and driver-types—many of which are represented in iFixit’s new comprehensive toolkits, the Manta Driver Kit and the Mahi Driver Kit. And yet, the flathead remains—a stubborn, unchanging testament to the past. Ridiculously imperfect. A clumsy neanderthal in an era of technological refinement.

Flathead screwdriver bit
Flat-head screwdriver bit illustration from an amazing 1945 naval tool manual, called Use of Tools.

But for all its flaws, it was always the most reliable, most familiar tool in my pink toolbox. And possibly all toolboxes. At least, I’d like to think so.

Maybe after a 500-year relationship, the flathead has imprinted on us permanently. Maybe, after so many years together, we’ve developed a kind of genetic resemblance—like how married couples start to look like each other after a few decades. Maybe we always come back to the flathead because it’s as bull-headed and imperfect as we are. Or maybe that’s just the Santa Cruz in me talking.

Maybe the flathead just reliably gets the job done. And maybe… that’s enough.

iFixit Bit Chart

Be sure to check out Witold Rybczynski’s impeccably documented book, One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw, from which most of the information in this article came. And be sure to join our mailing list—you’ll be the first to find out when the Manta Driver Kit and Mahi Driver Kit drop on Tuesday.