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Episode 1.9: William Allen and the Key to Success (Script)

Hi. I’m Keith Decent and this is From the Ground Up. A podcast about how we make what we make, the materials, the tools, and the stories behind the things we build.

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There’s good work down in New England. At least that’s what everyone in town had been saying. The Industrial Revolution had galvanized the Northeast United States as THE place to seek a new life, especially for residents of small town Quebec, Canada. Like many before them, the Lachance family, had set off to find the American Dream, before it was even called that, in Bristol, Connecticut.

It seemed as good a town as any other. It had opportunity. The mills and factories would hire French Canadian immigrants, which wasn’t always a guarantee. There was also a whole community of Quebecois. Whole blocks filled with French Speaking neighbors who, like Arthur and Ann-Marie had made this town their home. Little Canada. They even had their own French-speaking parish. St Ann Church. It started a few years ago at town hall, but now services were being held on the second floor of the factory where Arthur worked. The JH Sessions factory, right in the middle of town. Ann-Marie didn’t know how Arthur felt about having to trudge back into the building on a Sunday, but she enjoyed seeing where he worked so hard, for so many hours.

One thing Ann-Marie always noticed were the machines. Arthur worked making trunk hardware, and on his floor were gigantic fearsome machines used to cut and shape the metal pieces. She thought how incredibly loud it must be in this room when everything is running. She glanced at Arthur, who didn’t even acknowledge the iron beasts. His eyes were on the door to their makeshift chapel, just up ahead.

It was a lovely service, as usual. The good lord’s words just seemed so much more interesting in French. So much more relatable. Ann-Marie said as much to Arthur over dinner. He nodded in agreement.

Morning came, and Arthur once again set off for the factory. Men in dingy clothing, bundled up against the blustery New England December wind, lurched forth from doorways throughout the neighborhood. Boys, too. Some as young as 12. A quiet parade of workers, off to fill the factories.

It was around lunch time that Ann-Marie heard the knock at her door. It was too early for Arthur to be home, and too late for any deliveries. She hurried to open it, mostly out of curiosity. She recognized the man standing in her doorway. She did not recognize the expression on his face. It was her husband’s supervisor. His boss. She knew him from those services at St. Anne. He always had a patient smile on during the mass. Now though, his face was twisted up in a grimace. He was holding his hat in his hands, and struggling to introduce himself. Ann-Marie couldn’t pay attention to what he was saying, having just noticed the blood stains on his coveralls.

In the mumbled words he kept repeating she heard a name. Arthur. She was jolted back to reality. He was saying over and over again, slipping in between French and English.

“He’s dead, Ann-Marie. I’m sorry, Arthur is gone.”

She fell into the man’s arms. The warm metallic smell of her husband’s blood, it must have been his, mixed with the smoke and oil smell of the factory. Suddenly she panicked. The thought of those machines, those huge, spinning, grinding beasts. She couldn’t fight the thoughts as they slipped through her mind. “Had he gotten caught up in one? Was there anything left?” She must have been thinking out loud, as the man lowered his voice to a hush.

“It wasn’t that way, dear.” The supervisor had guided her back into the house, sat her down in a chair and explained as best he could. “There was a screw, one of the set screws on the drive shaft of one of the stamping machines.”

She shuddered again just hearing the words, “stamping machine.”

“They spin so fast,” he continued, “and Arthur’s sleeve got caught. His arm was cut deep from wrist to elbow. He bled to death too quickly, before anyone could help. He was peaceful, at the end, and praying. I am terribly sorry.”

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Advertising at the time explained that stories like this were commonplace. The claim was that 1500 people died every year due to accidents similar to what befell poor, old Arthur Lachance. This spurred a few ingenius people to work on the design and manufacture of a new type of screw. One with a recessed socket in it’s head that would not protrude from whatever surface it is driven into.

These now commonplace fasteners are known as Allen Screws, driven most usually by an Allen Key or Wrench. But why that name? Why is it called an Allen Key?

Well, it isn’t. Not technically anyway. While you might be cursing the name Allen while trying to assemble that flat-pack shelving unit, the tool is actually called a hex key. According to most people nerdy enough to actually explore the history of that little tool in the back of your junk drawer, the hex key, and it’s compatible hardware, were probably conceived in the late 19th century. However, no one really had the idea of how to manufacture it until about 1910. At that time, William Allen began manufacturing the “Allen Safety Set Screw” and associated driver in Hartford Ct. After patenting a method of cold forming the recessed head, he began making and distributing the product locally, and many of the Hartford and greater New England area factories immediately became customers. Not only were his screws safer, but they were also much stronger than what was previously being used. His business boomed, spread across the world, and soon the hex screw and the name “Allen” were inextricably linked.

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These days, Allen keys are everywhere. The rise in popularity of flat-pack furniture, that is furniture sold unassembled in order save on shipping and space, has ensured that nearly every household has one of the hexagonal tools sitting in some forgotten corner somewhere.

In the 80s and 90s, IKEA made a huge splash in the world of furniture manufacturing and design. Offering cheap products that looked somewhat high-end made their business model extremely profitable, and they basically took over the planet, one particle board bookcase at a time. Part of the company’s philosophy espouses a sleekness and simplicity common in Scandinavian design. Allen keys, with their recessed heads and elegant drivers, fit right in and were used in most of their unassembled products. Many of their pieces were famous for including everything you need for construction right in the box, enabling the least apt of customers to be able to build their own furniture, in a way. Besides the easy set up, there is also an emotional component to flat pack design. It seems counter intuitive, and IKEA furniture is jokingly famous for breaking up even the strongest of couples, but when someone assembles their own bookcase or sofa, they value that object up to 63% more than if it had been put together for them. It seems, according to studies, that the feeling of accomplishment and pride that comes with assembling your own furniture causes you to just like that furniture more. On the other hand, if the piece is too easy to assemble, then the sense of pride and value is diminished. So the designers have to create a piece that is easy to assemble, but not too easy. Thus is born the “IKEA effect,” in which a customer places a high value on the product due to how much they participate in the process of it’s setup. This often leads to situations where extra parts or a misaligned section causes the customer stress when floundering in the construction of a product advertised as “easy” to assemble that was designed to be fairly tricky.

So with every turn of the hexagonal tool, we can remember Mr Allen building an empire. We can fall in love with our new flat-pack computer desk. And we can wonder, what’s next? As one day, technology will advance again and even the Allen Screw will be a thing of the past (IKEA is already promising a new line of snap-together furniture that uses no fasteners at all).

But for now, remember that little L-shaped wrench, jangling around with the batteries and tape dispensers, and all the lives it both changed and saved on its way to the back of that drawer. Later, makers!

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