Thursday, March 24, 2011


When I was about six years old, my idea of geeky fun was to hide out in the dank basement of our family's house on Abbott Street, in Springfield, MA. There, I'd take apart old clocks, yank the vacuum tubes from ancient radios, and play jungle explorer with my father's night-watch kerosene lantern from his days defending Panama from WWII Japanese subs that never came.

But, my favorite activity was playing with an greasy, heavy wrought iron monkey wrench. I was fascinated by its heft in my little hands, and the simple dexterous motion of the thumbscrew that coiled and uncoiled to adjust the vice atop its hand grip. That it had only two moving parts was aesthetically pleasing to the arts and tech-inclined nerd that I was to grow up to be.

But, why was it called a monkey wrench? It didn't look like a monkey. Even my young mind knew that arboreal, knuckle walking social primates had no fittings nor pipes to tighten. My all-knowing dad had not a clue to the moniker's origin, either. I soon moved on to other questions, and left this matter behind to ponder and execute the design of futuristic model cites out of balsa wood cubes and some copper pipes, plastic safety razor holders, Instamatic Flash Cubes recovered from the trash. It was now four years later, 1964, and I'd just seen the NYC hosted World's Fair. The future was inhabiting my thoughts; a future where turbine powered cars would run on grain alcohol and people would make phone calls with video.

Some two decades later, however, I was looking toward the other end of history, rummaging through the fabulous Johnson's Used Book Store. This place is a lost treasure to the decay of downtown Springfield. It is so gone that it leaves not even a trace in the digital aether on Google nor Wikipedia. In any case, on one sunny afternoon, I somehow found the mouldering scent of old periodicals more enticing than the scent of spring blossoms and fetching young ladies, and I browsed the racks of tattered periodicals. There, I stumbled upon a magazine whose name I have long forgotten. Within it, though, was an article about the origin of the term monkey wrench. Shazzam! My inner six year old got his long delayed prize.

Although most tech and tool nerds believe that a British guy named Moncky (see the link above illustration below), was the fellow that patented an adjustable wrench in 1858 and gave his name to the tool, the fact is Lexicographers have the found the term monkey wrench dating back to at least 1840. Connecting the dots, the path to the tool's name comes to an origin in the hands of an iron miller named Monk who had grown tired of lugging around his heavy tool box full of fix sized wrenches. He worked in a small metal fab plant in Springfield on the bend where Mill Street meets southern Main Street. The mill was then owned by Bemis and Call Company, and they proceeded to produce Monk's innovative gripper/twister/puller and plumbers helper. That place on the corner still stands today, by the way. It's now a furniture and home decorating shop for the affluent.

Whatever, some day a future father will be cranky as he goes down to the basement to bang on the fittings of the home's aging thin-film photovoltaic powered sodium/water heating system and hand a wrench to a kid that will become fascinated with supple, useful, adjustable tech.

Keep and eye to the future, and an ear to the past…