Jack Johnson patented his
wrench invention from prison in 1912. Jack was the first black
heavyweight boxing champion of the world. His "crime"? Being seen
with a white woman during the days of Jim Crow. Interesting story,
but this is not about Jack Johnson's invention.
In 1835, Solymon Merrick of Springfield, Mass., became the first
American to patent a wrench. Solymon had something in common with
Jack Johnson -- the fact that this story is not about him either.
Charles, a British inventor living in Baltimore, created a new
wrench 150 years ago. Even though his tool is not so common today,
it is significant for two reasons. First is the fact that it was the
forerunner to the wrenches that are used today. The second reason
pertains to its spelling, because it was named after the inventor.
Working as a mechanic, Charles invented a wrench with a handle
that moved up and down. This was around 1858. I say "around 1858"
because my research also showed that it might have been in 1856.
There is hardly a thing written about Charles, even though his
invention is something that nearly every American has heard of;
there is more written about the invention than there is about its
Charles' wrench earned him $2,000, which helped him buy a house
in Williamsburg, N.Y. His wrench invention was the predecessor to
the adjustable, or crescent, wrench.
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One story written about the wrench and its funny name suggested that
its name came from the fact that it had a slide in the handle that
moved up and down, resembling a toy monkey. This was in 1903, and I
have no idea what a toy monkey looked like back then. Or what one
would like today, for that matter. Anyway, the story turned out to
Another story claimed that the wrench's name came from the fact
that it's a handy tool to monkey around with. This story was false,
too, but by now you've probably figured out that Charles invented
the monkey wrench.
So if neither story about Charles' wrench invention was accurate,
then how did the monkey wrench get its name? Just when you think
you've got this story all figured out -- there's more.
To throw a monkey wrench into something means to mess it up or to
sabotage it, and Charles threw a monkey wrench into his wrench when
he named it.
You see, Charles changed the name of his wrench just a little bit
-- from his own name. His last name was Moncky. Charles Moncky, that
As in Moncky wrench. But you knew that all along, didn't you?
Paul Niemann's column is syndicated
to more than 70 newspapers. He is the author of the "Invention
Mysteries" series of books. He can be reached at
Copyright Paul Niemann 2008