Here is my No.3 slotted screwdriver, which I’ve had forever. It has a nice translucent blue plastic handle and is an old friend. On its shank is the name—Herbrand 303-6. You can find a lot of tool history on the internet because a fair number of people collect “antique” tools, the implication being that I am an antique as well. What follows is gleaned from such sources.

Jacob Herbrand founded this outfit in Fremont, Ohio, in 1881, and when the auto industry flowered in the teens of the 20th century, he made auto tool kits. Herbrand claims to have made the first use of chromium-vanadium alloy steel—called it “Van-Chrome”—in tools in 1919. The result was material nearly three times the strength of mild steel. Think of the explosion in tool manufacturing during World War I! Kelsey-Hayes acquired the brand in 1961 as a part of Utica tools division. Six years later, Triangle Corp. bought Utica from Kelsey-Hayes, then Cooper Industries swallowed up Triangle, and at some more recent point the Herbrand name disappeared.

In the top center drawer are my Vise-Grip-style locking pliers (enduro riders carried small ones to act as emergency shift pedals). The inventor was Danish immigrant Bill Petersen in 1924. Stamped into the metal is the Blackhawk brand, which came to life in 1919 making automotive tools. Then, in the early 1950s, it was acquired by New Britain Machine Co., which in turn was bought by Litton in the 1970s (who remembers Litton’s attempts to market motorcycle chain?). In the 1980s, National Hand Tools bought Litton’s hand tools division, which included Blackhawk and Husky. In 1986, Stanley absorbed National, which included Blackhawk. It remains a brand of the Proto division of the tool giant, Stanley Black & Decker.

This process of acquisition has operated in Europe as well. In the top right drawer are three Dowidat 6-inch tire levers. Why so short? Because their limited mechanical advantage limits how much damage I can do while mounting tires. Short tire levers persuade me to think rather than pull harder and pinch a tube. Three Dowidat brothers had a tool business in 1919, but the company was reformed by one brother in 1949, merged with Belzer to become Belzer-Dowidat, which was bought in 1986 by Swedish firm Bahco, after which the Dowidat name disappeared. Bahco is now owned by Snap-on.

Hand tools
Hand tools produced by once-revered American and European brands, some of which have since been acquired several times over by larger corporations, have found their way to the author’s toolbox.Kevin Cameron

One of the most essential of my tools is a pair of Proto 250 transmission pliers. Many kinds of internal and external snap rings have eyes, but transmission pliers are for eyeless external rings; they open when you squeeze, and their textured gripping surfaces are on the outsides of their thin jaws. I needed these in order to remove and install the rings on our 500cc Kawasaki H1R roadrace bike. Gradually, with those pliers in hand, I learned what I needed to know. Proto began in 1948, was acquired by Ingersoll Rand in 1964, and in 1984 became part of the Stanley group as Stanley Proto Industrial Tools. It looks like my transmission pliers are still available.

A repeating pattern in industry has been the small family-owned outfit that comes into being to serve an emerging market and then establishes itself. The fate of one such, Burgmaster, is described in Max Holland's 1989 Harvard Business School Press book, When The Machine Stopped. The old man who built the business and knew the first names of all his customers and suppliers decides after his mild heart attack that it's time to take an offer from one of the mergers and acquisitions groups, retire, and enjoy the grandchildren. Outside managers are sent in to run the company from a manual of recommended practice. This is a process that often has not gone as planned.

I can’t use my tools now as much as I did in the 1970s—my keyboard gets between me and them—but they remain a source of pleasure.