“Ticked Off” by a Wrench, MIT Engineer Fixed His Place in Tool History
Slice of MIT
It’s probably true that most folks would like to be somehow remembered by posterity after they’re gone. The problem is, you can’t really control what you’re remembered for. Case in point: MIT mechanical engineering graduate Robert G. Gottlieb ’60, SM ’61 holds at least 14 patents and made countless contributions to the space program over his long career, including helping America get to the Moon on the Apollo project. But his most lasting legacy is probably going to be an adjustable wrench.
Admittedly, it’s not just any wrench—it’s one of the most popular tools on the planet, the Stanley Tools 85-610 Locking Wrench, an adjustable crescent wrench and locking pliers combination. “Quickly found an honored place above the workbench.... No other tool has the range this wrench does,” raves a review on the Stanley website.
Gottlieb certainly didn’t have posterity in mind when he invented the wrench in 1982. He was simply exasperated. After earning a PhD in aerospace engineering at the University of Texas in 1973 and realizing that the glory days of Apollo were over, he moved from Houston to Kansas City to join his stepfather’s company. “One of the things I got involved with was helping the mechanic fix some big machines, and we had no real proper tools,” he remembers. “So we used crescent wrenches for everything. And every time I tightened up my crescent wrench and pulled on it to loosen some nut or tighten it, the thing would slip off and I’d bang my hand on this piece of machinery. And I got so ticked off, I said, dammit, I’m going to put an end to this.”
In the time-honored tradition of ticked-off engineers fixing a pesky problem, Gottlieb invented his locking nonslip wrench, obtained a patent, and tried to find a manufacturer before the patent ran out. But no one would bite. “I was really worried about it,” he says. Then, on a flight to Phoenix, Gottlieb happened to pick up a magazine featuring an interview with the president of Stanley Tools. “In the article he said, I’m looking for new tool ideas,” he recalls. “So I thought, buddy, have I got an idea for you!”
Immediately after landing, Gottlieb got the president of Stanley Tools on the phone. He soon found himself at Stanley headquarters, pitching his idea to the chief engineer. Showing off his prototype, Gottlieb clamped his car keys in the grip of his wrench and told the engineer that if he could get the keys out without opening it, he could keep the car. “Of course, he couldn’t do it,” Gottlieb says. “But I think it impressed him.” Stanley offered a deal of 2 percent of net sales until Gottlieb’s patent expired. “I was so happy that somebody was going to do something with it, I said, okay,” he laughs. “It’s probably the biggest mistake I ever made. If I’d have been a little bit smarter, I’d be a lot richer. “
Gottlieb clamped his car keys in the grip of his wrench and told the engineer that if he could get the keys out without opening it, he could keep the car.
For most of his career, however, Gottlieb has been working at far loftier levels. He spent much of his early career at NASA, helping to design trajectory and navigation software as part of Wernher von Braun’s Saturn V team in Huntsville, Alabama. Later, after his Kansas City interlude, he worked for Boeing, making major contributions to the Iridium satellite network, among other projects. Presently, way past the age when most people are long retired, he’s a technical fellow at Odyssey Space Research, a small Houston-based company that consults with NASA on various projects, including International Space Station operations. Meanwhile, he continues to come up with new inventions and ideas. One of his recent inspirations involves placing a camera on the Moon to transmit a continuous real-time image of Earth in the lunar sky, so that “everyone can see how they’re affecting that little blue marble we all live on.”
But he’s okay if he’s just remembered for his wrench. “It’s good to be remembered for something,” he says. “When you think about it, you have millions and millions of people that use wrenches, but it took a PhD that graduated from MIT and UT to fix the darn thing so it wouldn’t slip.”
Mark Wolverton is a 2016–17 MIT Knight Science Journalism Fellow. Photo (top): Gottlieb with his invention, the Stanley Tools 85-610 Locking Wrench. Courtesy of Bob Gottlieb.