Each year, Tools of the Trade pays tribute to the people whose insight and effort over the years have helped to create or inspire the tools we use today. These are the pioneers whose inventions and ideas not only revolutionized the tool world then, but also set the stage for the way we work today. Few in construction will have difficulty recognizing the inventions of Albert J. Swanson and Donald Wright; and likely few get through a day without reaching for them. So the next time you open your toolbox, reflect on the tools that come to hand and be thankful that people like Swanson and Wright had the vision to put them there.
Albert J. Swanson
Carpenter created the Speed Square
As every carpenter knows, rafter squares are actually manual calculators with inscribed tables for figuring measurements and angles for rafters, stair layouts, and much more. Mastering this complex tool is both a challenge and a rite of passage for anyone who works with lumber; it can seem incomprehensible at first, and some carpenters don't even make the effort. But squares are an essential tool on any job. So although every guy on the deck might not have a framing square, most keep a handy alternative–a Swanson Speed Square–stuck in their nail aprons.
In 1925 a young Swedish-American carpenter named Albert J. Swanson also became frustrated with the complexity and clumsiness of the rafter square. So at night he went home and worked out a way to determine lumber cuts using a smaller tool with a simpler yet equally effective "one-number" calculating method.
It took Swanson three years to get his speed squares right, and at first he made them just for the carpenters he worked with. When he moved to Chicago from Iowa to help build the new Drake Hotel and homes on the booming South Side, his square caught the attention of Montgomery Ward, and in 1930 the big catalog retailer began producing the tools under the name "Lakeside Squares." Later, ownership of the product returned to Swanson and the squares became widely known under his own brand name.
The Allemand family purchased the business in 1989 and has been producing Speed Squares ever since, adding useful features and increasing the number of variations to more than 50 from the original, "one-size-fits-all-pockets" square.
Created the Mono-vial level
When Donald Wright, a pharmacist by trade, married into the family-owned Empire Level Mfg. Corp. in 1953 it's doubtful he could have foreseen the revolutionary contributions he would ultimately make in the industry.
Wright had big shoes to fill–company founder Henry Ziemann produced the first level with replaceable bubble vials and Ziemann's son Harry was responsible for developing the torpedo level. But Wright proved up to the task. In 1967, he patented the first permanently embedded single-bubble vial, an innovation that would forever change the way levels were built. The Mono-vial level "really revolutionized the industry," says Jennifer Becker, Wright's granddaughter and Empire/s current president. "For the first time, the vial became the level itself."
Under Wright's leadership, Empire introduced the magnetic level, the top-reading level, and the first all-plastic level. Wright also developed the grade lines on bubble levels for reading pitch angles.
Empire now holds 30 patents and claims more improvements to this simple yet essential tool than any other manufacturer, thanks in large part to a son-in-law who earned his way into the family.
–Michael Morris is a contributing editor to Tools of the Trade.