Here's a story that's personal and technological and obscure and geeky, and not at all political, until you get to the end. It's also true.

My dad was an industrial engineer. He went to college on the VA's dime, because he was in the National Guard during the Korean War.

I can hear you. "What's an industrial engineer?" It can be many things, like what they used to call an "efficiency expert." Mostly, it's someone who looks at industrial processes and finds new and better ways to do them.

Dad invented a new kind of screw.

That doesn't sound like much, but it is a Very Big Deal.

When you think of screws--especially wood screws--you probably think of something like this. It's a nail with threads around it, and a slot (or two slots) in the head so you use a screwdriver instead of a hammer.

The problem is, in some materials (like metal or concrete) a screw doesn't work well. It just makes chips. You have to drill a hole in it first with some kind of specialty drill bit, and even then, the screw might not be able to bore in.

Even in some woods, you drill guide holes before you set screws in them, because you don't want to split the wood.

Here's what a drill bit looks like. Notice, there's a difference in the tip. Screws have a point with a wire wound around it. Drills have blades.

Dad invented a screw that has a drill blade at the tip, instead of a point. It's like a shovel going into the ground. These things drill their own holes. They can drill into nearly anything.

Seems obvious, but no one had done it before.

He worked at the time for a company called Illinois Tool Works. They mass produced his invention.

Dad called them TEK screws, and they're still called that today, but I think ITW sold the patent (and the name) to someone else.

It was more than fifty years ago when Dad invented the self-drilling screw. A little thing, but it made lots of jobs a lot easier.

Dad never got credit for his invention. He worked for a corporation that owned his work.

In the 1980's, they laid him off during one of the times the building trades went into recession. He found another job after two years, and worked there until he retired.

Don't worry, this isn't a sob story about an inventor dying poor. He didn't.

Dad lived a comfortable middle class life, and died happy in an upscale retirement community in Florida.

But he never got credit for a multi-billion-dollar invention that changed the world, and he didn't own any of what he had created.

Corporations own us. They own what we do, what we create, what we make. That's the price we pay for being employed--even though they can fire you whenever they want.

That's not right, but I'm not sure what sort of practical system would be better.

This wasn't the first thing Dad invented that made billions for other people. Dad isn't the only one who did this, either.

I decided long ago, capitalism is the worst possible economic system.

Except, of course, for every other one.

PS. Dad also invented what became Corelle dinnerware a decade later. In the early 60s, he was trying to create a plastic set of dishes that looked good enough to substitute for fine china, but was almost indestructible.
Dad worked at the time for Mallory Plastics. He created the first set of Melamine dishware--two sets, which cost the firm $100,000 to mix and tool.

After creating them, they decided there was no market for plastic china.…
Mallory did eventually start up production again, after Dad had left the firm. Mallory started up the Melamine line again after Corelle stole the idea and started making money off it.

Dad took one of the two prototype sets with him when he left Mallory to go to work for ITW.
Dad called those dishes his "$50,000 set of china," since it was one of two that had together cost $100,000. In about 1963. That was a lot of money back then.

We used it as everyday dishware for decades.
The dishes were shaped sort of like this, but with a really fancy pattern instead of a solid color.…
PPS. My dad died in 1997, about four months after his 69th birthday. On May 29 of this year, he would have been 93. He invented self-drilling screws and plastic china before he was 40.
PPPS. This is a story about how someone in an incredibly boring and non-flashy profession can change the world.

Be a goddam hero. Change the world.
... even if no one ever knows your name.

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More from @dcpetterson

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27 Mar
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