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Inventor of wrench sabotaged its name

By Paul Niemann

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[July 15, 2008]  Have you ever wondered how certain things get their names? This story is about the name of a wrench that you've heard of, but you probably didn't know how it got its name.

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. Sort of.

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 inventor.

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 be false.

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 is.

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

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