DeWitt, Nebraska, is about 100 miles southwest of Omaha. Covering 300 acres or so, it’s not a big place. In the 2010 census, the population was 510, not far off how it was a century before. Named after a Reverend DeWitt Talmage, it could be described as a one-horse town. But luckily, there were once enough horses for a blacksmith to stay in business.
A blacksmith who created a tool that has since proved useful around the world in so many different situations: the Vise-Grip.
William Petersen left Denmark, his country of birth, and arrived in the United States as the 1800s gave way to the 1900s. He became a farmer, but that didn’t work out. He tried building and selling those newfangled motor cars. That didn’t work out either. Somehow he ended up in DeWitt, where he set up shop as a blacksmith. But Petersen was also something of an obsessive tinkerer and compulsive inventor.
No doubt while smithing away one day, he was holding something with a pair of pliers and wishing that their grip could be locked in some fashion. Like a vise. Ah-ha. After knocking together a few prototypes, he forged a working version with a screw action to fine-tune the width of the jaws, and a way for one of the handles to activate the lock. He took out his first patent in 1921, followed by a second one with the locking lever in 1924.
Petersen built up a stock of Vise-Grips and started selling them from the trunk of his car, calling on farmers and mechanics in nearby towns. Despite the Great Depression, Vise-Grips turned into a thriving business. The Petersen Manufacturing Company came into being in 1934, taking over an old drug store and hiring 37 workers.
By this time, Petersen was married with three sons and a daughter, each child working at the family firm. One son managed to procure a government contract, requiring thousands of Vise-Grips to help in the construction of WWII airplanes and navy vessels, like Liberty cargo ships. These ships had to be built quickly, so it was often faster to weld pieces together and leave the attached Vise-Grips in the hull. Since they only cost around $1.25 at the time (1941), it was an acceptable expense. It also meant a workforce of 500 back in DeWitt.
The Second World War saved Petersen Manufacturing, since the original patent expired in 1941 and, without those government contracts, the competition could have been too much. Once the war ended, returning ex-servicemen starting building their homes and naturally used Vise-Grips. Even then, the company carried on making refinements: the easy release lever was added in 1957.
Perhaps we take these tools for granted because they’ve always been there. We’ve borrowed them from our dads’ toolboxes, just as they probably did from their dads. But it’s a wonderful design, the way the jaws are knurled and curved to accommodate so many shapes and sizes of nut, screw, bolt or pipe. Vise-Grips have also been used to clamp the major artery of a bleeding cow, replace a car’s broken gearshift lever and re-attach scaffolding to a wall, saving a life in the process. There’s even a story of one holding together a wedding bouquet (although no subsequent mention of what happened when the bride threw her bouquet toward the single ladies at the reception).
Petersen Manufacturing changed its name to the American Tool Company in 1985, acquired Irwin tool makers in 1993 and the whole concern was bought by Newell Rubbermaid in 2002. NR retained the Irwin brand for its Vise-Grips, but moved production to China in October 2008, sending half of DeWitt’s working population to the unemployment lines. A sad end for an American icon. But it is still possible to buy used Petersen-branded Vise-Grips from places like eBay. Even though other companies now make them, the original has always been the best.
Liberty ships had to be built quickly, so it was often faster to weld pieces together and leave the attached Vise-Grips in the hull.