Abstract: The Nuts and Bolts of Modernity: Standard Screw Threads and the Industrial Economy of the United States

Stephen Mihm


In the late nineteenth century United States, the drive to establish technical standards became an all-consuming obsession for many industrialists and reformers. This was particularly the case with screw threads, which varied wildly from place to place and firm to firm. As industrial corporations grew larger, and their markets ever more expansive, the fact that the literal nuts and bolts of the American system failed to fit together became an increasingly pressing problem. Limitless competition between firms seemed to stand in the way of standardization. This paper examines how standardization of screw threads proceeded in this environment, beginning with early efforts from the Franklin Institute and the engineer William Sellers. It then examines the remarkable roadblocks that the Sellers standard encountered, and the ways that this was ultimately resolved: via an elaborate coalition of interest groups whose efforts literally set the standard for future attempts to set technical and industrial standards.