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  • The Social, Textual Lives of PatentsThe Phillips Screw and Driver
  • Grant Leyton Simpson (bio)


There is a good chance, given that Textual Cultures transitioned away from print in 2013 (O’Sullivan 2013), that you are reading this on a device that is held together by one or more screws. It is less likely that those fasteners were active objects of your cognitive faculties, at least until prompted by this article’s title. Even when directly engaging with a screw and driver, we tend to do so in a manner in which they are, to use Heideggerian terminology, ready-to-hand (zuhanden) rather than present-at-hand (vorhanden). They are just there, waiting with potential utility. Most of us do not dwell on the fact that they have not always been there nor that they directly affect the affordances of particular devices.

Devices with commonly available fasteners afford opening, i.e. the potential for opening exists, even if it is never exploited.1 Screws, though small and seemingly inconsequential, are gatekeepers to the concrete internals of our technology. They inhabit our furniture, toys, electronics, and sometimes our bodies (see figure 1). As such, they contribute to how we relate to objects in the modern world, whether those objects are high tech or low tech, human or inanimate. They are commonplace inventions. Yet commonplace inventions have historical and social footprints that, due to the market protections afforded by patent grants, intersect in complex ways with networks of patents, inventors, users, and numerous [End Page 172] associated others. Patent texts stipulate how objects like these, i.e. objects in the world should be instantiated—that is, they establish an ideal type to which the tokens that proliferate should conform. They are also instruments of power, as a patent for a mass-producible item is both a pattern for proliferation and a monopoly on production. When such power is mobilized, the results are never merely technical but are always also social and frequently textual.2

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Figure 1.

An ankle held together by several screws. Detail of a photograph by Flickr user ceonyc. Used according to a Creative Commons CC-BY-SA license.

After all, small objects such as these often have an outsized effect on our lives. When Apple Inc., recently the world’s largest company by market capitalization, changed to an obscure pentalobe screw in its devices, the devices ceased affording opening (Wiens 2011). The intent was clear: consumers are not meant to open these devices. Puns using the verb “to screw” abounded. The approach was predicated upon scarcity, as Apple “chose this fastener specifically because it was new, guaranteeing repair tools would be both rare and expensive” (Wiens 2011). The pentalobe screw stands in the way of our relating to a particular piece of technology in a particular way; one must subvert it in order to exploit the affordance of opening. Until [End Page 173] then, the pentalobe screw not only fastens, it seals. The Phillips screw, on the other hand, is ubiquitous. Drivers are easily obtained, even for very small heads. The screws can be installed, removed, or replaced. But this fact is historically contingent, much like the scarcity of pentalobe drivers in 2011. Though Apple did not patent the pentalobe screw and driver, Henry Phillips filed for numerous patents for his particular cruciform fastener and its corresponding driver. Until the patents expired, anyone legally manufacturing Phillips screws or drivers would have had to license the technology.

The present work attempts two things. First, it explores the nature of patent textuality. In doing so, it construes patents as collaboratively created social actors whose legal and cultural authority are effected by performative speech acts. As a social actor, a patent—and the invention that corresponds to it—is the subject of interpretation by lawyers, inventors, implementers, and users. The second goal of this article engages such interpretation in the context of the Phillips screw and driver patents. In exploring said patents and the tools’ reception in the popular culture by users and handypersons, I take up two challenges put forth by D.F. McKenzie: to account for...


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pp. 172-205
Launched on MUSE
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