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The History of the U.S. Fastener Industry

Modern life would not be possible without nuts and bolts.

Every time you drive across a bridge, or take a plane to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving, or toss the keys to the family mini-van to your daughter, you are taking for granted the excellence of the fasteners used in manufacturing today. It was a long and bumpy road to the levels of standardization and quality that we enjoy today, however.

Although crude fasteners had been around since early civilizations, being employed in carts and agricultural equipment, the level of technological improvement was fairly static for hundreds of years until the Industrial Revolution. As with so many other things, this new era meant that large numbers of screws and bolts could be produced in a shorter amount of time, and with more consistency and precision. By the mid 1700’s, the Wyatt brothers in England were manufacturing 150,000 wooden screws a week.

Across the pond in America, several companies were making fasteners by the late 1700’s. However, there was no standard for size or thread density from business to business, which made expansion of the industry difficult. The Rugg & Barnes Company and the A.P. Plant Company, both in Connecticut were established in the early 1840’s, and were the first large manufacturers to focus solely on making fasteners. In a matter of a few years, another historical event loomed that would begin to bring the industry into the modern age: the Civil War. It brought with it a huge demand for machinery, and by extension, screws, nuts, and bolts.

It was during this period that the need for developing an American thread standard became apparent, and William Sellers enters the picture. In 1864, he proposed a uniform system of screw threads which differed from the British (Whitworth) standard in that the tops and bottoms of the threads are rounded rather than flattened. In the long run this proved to be the superior system, as it withstands stress and resists cracking and breaking better than the flattened threads of the Whitworth standard. However, it would be twenty years before his system was accepted as the American standard.

Having a different standard from the British did cause some consternation during the two World Wars, when field repairs were made difficult by the inconsistencies, but cooperation and temporary measures saw them through. In 1964 the International Organization for Standardization announced two universal thread systems: ISO Inch and ISO Metric. The United States is the only country still tied to the inch system. As the American expansion moved west, so did the center for fastener manufacturing. Cleveland, Ohio, which was close to the expanding railroads and steel and iron production, soon became the capital of the American fastener industry.

The twentieth century saw steady growth for the industry in the U.S., and by 1969 there were 450 companies, 600 plants, and more than 50,000 people employed in the manufacture of fasteners. The next twenty years would bring a slow and steady decline, due in part to increasing availability of inexpensive foreign-made product. In 1985, the “bogus bolts” controversy began to surface, and reports of equipment failure and even loss of life due to faulty, substandard bolts prompted an investigation by a U.S. House subcommittee. After an 18 month investigation, it was determined that the faulty and counterfeit bolts were largely foreign-made, which led to the passage in 1990 of the FQA, or Fastener Quality Act. This resulted in a huge demand for American made fasteners. By 2007, the U.S. fastener industry was a $14 billion part of the economy. Although in the 21st century competition from foreign manufacturers is still an issue, the U.S. maintains its leadership by responding to the need for technologically sophisticated products. The aerospace industry, the medical and food industries, energy producers, and the semiconductor industry all have a requirement for special materials such as A286, Inconel 718, PVDF, or MP35N, as well as for uncompromising quality and strength. The U.S. fastener industry will continue to respond to these needs with unsurpassed excellence.

More articles from OSS:

From Cutlery to Space Shuttles: The History of Stainless Steel and Superalloys

An Introduction to Superalloys

A Strong Family Tree: An Introduction to Stainless Steel Grades and Types

The ABC's of Nuts and Bolts

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