Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Charles Monk, Monkey Wrenches and a "Monkey on a Stick" - a Gripping History and Etymology of "Monkey Wrench"





In Orson Welles’ classic film, Citizen Kane, a newsreel crew spends the entire film looking for the meaning of Kane’s dying word, Rosebud.  The producer is hopefully optimistic; he muses, “it’ll probably turn out to be a very simple thing.”  But despite reading his banker’s diary, and interviewing his business partner, buddy, ex-wife and butler, the news crew never finds the answer.  

As the film nears its final frame, however, the viewers learn the truth.  In an incinerator, going up in smoke with the detritus of Kane’s eventful but ultimately empty life, the camera zooms in on Kane’s childhood sled – the sled he was riding when the bankers took him from his mother; the name on the sled – Rosebud.

The meaning of the cryptic term monkey wrench – “a wrench with one fixed and one adjustable jaw at right angles to a straight handle” [i] – has similarly frustrated investigators.  The many twists and turns in the story have made it nearly impossible to get a firm grasp on the matter.  It may have turned out, however, to be a very simple thing after all.  An obscure, century-old reference provides a simple, plausible, Rosebud-like clue; the name may derive from a simple children’s toy – a toy that was popular throughout the 1800s and into the early 1900s – a “monkey on a stick.”

But like Citizen Kane, we need to run through the entire cast of characters, sifting through all of the evidence, to fully appreciate the deceptively simple pay-off at the end.



Charles Monk

The traditional folk-etymology of monkey wrench holds that it was named after its inventor, Charles Moncky (sometimes Monkay[ii]), who sold his invention for $2000 and bought a small cottage in Brooklyn or Williamsburg, New York. The earliest example of the story I could find is from 1885:

We see it stated that such great manufactures as Krupp, Whitworth, Armstrong and Hotchkiss have to send to America for all their screw-bar wrenches.  About 80,000 dozen are exported to Europe annually.  The inventor, Charles Moncky, lives in a small cottage in Brooklyn.

Engineering Mechanics, November 1885, page 324.

The story was repeated dozens of times in various periodicals during the following few years; sometimes in nearly identical language, and sometimes adding further details:

That handy tool, the “monkey-wrench” is not so named because it is a handy thing to monkey with, or for any kindred reason.  “Monkey” is not its name at all, but “Moncky.”  Charles Moncky, the inventor of it, sold his patent for $2000, and invested the money in a house in Williamsburg, Kings County, where he now lives.  Iron, a London trade paper, says that 80,000 dozen Moncky wrenches are exported to Europe annually.  “The toolmakers and machinists of Euorpe,” says Iron, “such as Krupp, of Germany; Whitworth & Armstrong, of England, and Hotchkiss, of France, with their vast resources are unable to produce a Moncky or screw-bar wrench equal to the American wrenches, and consequently they have to import these tools from the United States.” 

Notes and Queries, Volume 4, November 1887, Number 11, page 408.

This apparently all-too-cute explanation is generally dismissed for want of actual evidence of invention.  There is evidence, however, that the man actually existed; and he may actually have lived in a small cottage in Brooklyn. 

The US Census for 1880 lists a man named Charles Monk, age 52, living with his wife and children at 190 16th Street, a quaint residential street in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York.  His occupations are listed as – wait for it . . .  – “moulder and tool-maker.”  Is this the Charles Moncky of urban legend?

A molder makes molds used in the fabrication of cast-metal pieces at a foundry.  Charles Monk was more than just a working stiff, however.  He also manufactured his own line of molders’ tools.  The business appears to have been fairly substantial, as his tools were advertised in a tool-supply catalogue based in far-off Detroit, Michigan.  If the tools illustrated in this one catalogue are representative of his entire line of products, it looks as though he may not have made wrenches and the like; all of the tools pictured appear to be molders’ shaping tools, not mechanics’ tools:


Chas. A. Strelinger, A Book of Tools, Being a Catalogue of Tools, Supplies, Machinery, and Similar Goods
Detroit, Michigan, Chas. A. Strelinger & Co., 1895, page 290


Charles Monk is also absent from the old patent records; suggesting that perhaps he was not the inventor.  And, in any case, he was not old enough to have invented, coined, or inspired the term, monkey wrench; he would have been only twelve years old in 1840 when the earliest known accounts of monkey wrenches appeared in print.




Monkey Wrench

The earliest accounts of monkey wrenches that I found in print[iii] are all from the railroad industry.  Surprisingly, perhaps, the earliest example is from England, where what Americans call wrenches are generally referred to as spanners:

Every engine-man shall have with him at all times in his tender, the following tools, viz: a complete set of screw keys, one large and one small monkey wrench . . . .

1 January 1840 By Order of the Board of Directors [North Union Railway]

Five Reports from the Select Committee (of the House of Commons) on Railway Communication, Fifth Report, dated 10 July 1840 (North Union Railway), Appendix, No. 1 (North Union Railway), page 422.  A similar rule may have been in place on the Liverpool to Manchester line as early as March 1839. See, Whishaw (endnote iv), pages 211, 217.

This early locomotive regulation was soon co-opted and adopted by railroads in Britain, France, the United States and Canada; frequently copied verbatim.[iv]  In the United States, the “one large and one small monkey wrench” rule was included in a set of “Rules and Regulations for the Management of a Locomotive Engine,” adopted at the meeting of the United States’ Institute of Civil Engineers in 1845.[v]

Although the early paper trail, so far as I can tell, is entirely from the railroading documents, it is not clear that use of the term originated in, or whether its use was restricted to, the railroad industry.  But even if it had been so limited, it was not confined to railroading for long.  It appears to have been common and widespread, at least in other technical circles, by the 1850s.  In 1850 alone, Monkey wrenches were listed in requisitions of the US Army quartermaster in California and the US Navy Bureau of Construction in Washington DC, as well as in a British technical dictionary and an American magazine targeting farmers.  

American Farmer, Volume 6, 1850,  Pictorial Farmer (Baltimore)


Monkey wrench appeared with increasing frequency throughout the 1850s, and seems to have become very common by the 1860s.  The following item about possible fraud, waste and abuse in Civil War-era military procurement reveals that some things never change:

I found there that monkey-wrenches, the fair price of which was from twelve to fifteen dollars a dozen, were bought by the Navy Department at Portsmouth for $150 a dozen.

The Congressional Globe, Twenty-Eighth Congress, 2d Session, New Series Number 54, February 18, 1865, Page 851.

As technology advanced and mechanical contraptions became more common, familiar and accessible to regular folks in their everyday lives, the monkey wrench eventually earned a permanent place in pop-culture; but not until after it proved to be dangerous – at least in the wrong hands.  

[Update:  October 19, 2015.  Since posting this piece, I was able to find one earlier example of "monkey wrench" in print, from before Charles Monk was born; he was clearly not responsible for the name, or the wrench.  In August, 1826, William Darlington of Chester, England, was arrested on charges of stealing a "monkey wrench." One of the reports of the arrest seems to suggest that the term was not common:


AN OLD OFFENDER:
William Darlington, aged [illegible], a bricklayer, was charged with stealing a piece of iron, called a monkey wrench, the property of . . . .

Chester Chronicle (Cheshire, England), August 11, 1826 (I only had access to an OCR excerpt of the article; but two other reports of the same incident reported that the "monkey wrench" was property of the "Canal . . . ." See, Chester Chronicle, August 4, 1826; Chester Courant (Cheshire, England), August 8, 1826).] 


Monkey Wrench in the Machine/Works

         Actual Wrenches

A monkey wrench is a very useful and versatile tool for maintaining and repairing machinery.  When handled carelessly, it can be just as dangerous:

Winfield Wickham, foreman in the box making department of a Cedar Rapids creamery and dairy supply house, met with a fearful accident.  While at work he dropped a wrench on a moving pulley which was revolving at the rate of 2,500 times a minute.  The high speed broke the wrench, and the pieces flew in different directions, the large, heavy end striking Wickham in the face.  His nose was crushed flat, and a deep cut was made in the right cheek just below the eye.

Iowa State Bystander, June 22, 1894, page 2.  

In 1903, Robert Gordon, an employee of the Paducah Cooperage Co. (they made barrels), was injured:

He was working near a machine when his wrench slipped and threw him into the planer.  His left hand was caught in the machine and the thumb badly cut.

The Paducah Sun (Kentucky), February 13, 1903, page 7.

In 1906, the village of McGraw, New York nearly burned to the ground because of a dropped wrench:

Wrench Dropped and Town Burned.  The little village of McGraw, four miles east of Cortland, was threatened with extermination by a fire early this morning which destroyed twelve of the fifteen stores and shops in Main st., with a loss estimated at $60,000. . . . An old fashioned hand engine constitutes the village equipment, and that was put out of commission at the start by one of the firemen dropping a wrench into the valve.

New York Tribune, January 29, 1906, page 3. 

The problem was common enough in 1910 that a technical journal included specific precautions against dropping wrenches into machinery:

While it is essential to use a great deal of care in working the knife on the stave machine – especially instructing the machinist not to drop his wrench in the machine, but to keep it in his toolbox, where it belongs when not in use . . . .

Barrel and Box (Chicago, Illinois), Volume 14, Number 3, May 1909, page 34.


         Metaphoric Wrenches

By 1907, the San Francisco Call put the dangers of mislaid monkey wrenches to metaphoric use:

The clearing house association has now laid a heavy hand on all this business.  Speculative banking constitutes, of course, but a small fraction of the financial system, but, like the man who throws a monkey wrench into a machine, it causes a temporary derangement and the wheels stop for a short space while repairs are made.

The San Francisco Call, November 2, 1907, page 8.

There appears to be an unfortunate impediment in the legislative reasoning apparatus, as if somebody had dropped a monkey wrench into the machine.

The San Francisco Call, March 10, 1911, page 6. 

Others soon followed:

New York, Aug. 16. – [A]t the opening of the present [baseball] season someone threw a monkey wrench into the works and the old machine buckled up.  In other words, the members of the team allowed spite and jealousies to creep in and the smooth running harmony, essential to a pennant race, was gone. . . .

The Salt Lake Tribune (Utah), August 17, 1913, sporting section, page 4.

Quack press threatened to throw the monkeywrench into the works of Babb, Sheridan and Barber by neat first page double-leaded expose.  Heavy on the last syllable of exposay.  I believe it’s French.

The Day Book (Chicago, Illinois), June 2, 1914, page 13.

Curiously, the several reports of actual wrenches I dug up used the word, “wrench,” without monkey.  The several, early metaphoric uses, however, specifically refer to monkey wrenches.  Perhaps the word “monkey” is just more funny; or perhaps monkey wrenches were so ubiquitous that they naturally came to mind.

Monkey wrenches became common, household items, in large part, through the efforts of one man; Loring Coes, the inventor of the modern monkey wrench.


Loring Coes

1874
Loring Coes was no Charles Foster Kane, but he was a successful businessman for nearly seventy years.  When he died in 1906, the New York Tribune noted his, “reputation of being the oldest man in the country actively engaged in the management of a big manufacturing concern.”[vi]  Although he did not invent the screw-wrench, or monkey wrench, he did invent a wildly successful new type of monkey wrench that formed the basis of his long-lasting business empire.  

Necessity is the mother of invention; but it wasn’t a new tool that Coes needed in 1841 – it was a new business.  His first business had failed; but not by any fault of his own.  It burned to the ground in 1839 and he needed to do something to change his fortunes.

Loring Coes and his brother Aury were carpenters.  Starting as apprentices, they quickly worked their way up the ladder.  In 1835, purchased the firm where they were both employed; Kimball & Fuller, located at Court Mills, near Worcester, Massachusetts.  Their business (along with several others), however, were soon wiped out by a devastating fire in 1839.  

To help make ends meet and get their feet back on the ground, the brothers moved to Springfield, Massachusetts.  There, they put their carpentry skills to good use; working as pattern-makers at a foundry for two years.  It was during that period that Loring Coes perfected his idea for an improved screw-wrench.[vii]

When the Coes Brothers arrived in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1839, it was already a hot-bed of screw-wrench technology.  It was home to Solyman Merrick, who had invented a successful to the earlier, English screw-wrenches that were operated by twisting the handle.  The foundry where the Coes Brothers worked was precisely the sort of business that might have helped manufacture Merrick’s wrenches.  We do not know whether they had any specific contact with Merrick, but it seems likely that they may have had some exposure to the screw-wrench industry in Springfield.  But wherever they got it, they were inspired; their invention transformed the wrench industry.

Loring Coes, The New England Magazine, n.s., Volume 31, Page 486



         Earlier Wrenches

Screw wrenches date back to at least the early 1800s.  William Barlow, of His Majesty's Dock-Yard, Portsmouth, England, may have invented the first one in 1809.  He received a "Premium of Five Guineas" for his efforts:

I have found, from long experience, the imperfections of the various wrenches in common use, for the screw-heads and nuts of engines in general, which are often materially injured for want of an instrument which would fit variety of sizes, and be applied with as much advantage as a solid wrench. . . .

This wrench, by means of a nut and screw, is adjusted with the greatest ease to the exact size required, and in that state rendered so steady that in use it is found equal to a solid wrench.

Repertory of Arts, Manufactures, and Agriculture, Series 2, Volume 15, 1809 (London), page 44.


Repertory of Arts, Manufactures, and Agriculture, Series 2, Volume 15, 1809, Plate III, Figures 10-12.


Other adjustable wrenches, more similar to what were later called monkey wrenches, are believed to have been made or imported into New England as early as the late 1700s.[viii] Monkey wrench-type wrenches were well-established by 1825; and their drawbacks were already apparent:

The screw-wrenches in general use are actuated by a screw which passes up the middle of the handle, which so much weakens them, that they are frequently broken in that part when used in heavy work; and the chaps [(jaws)] are liable to open and be loosed from their hold by the handle turning round.

The Register of Arts and Journal of Patent Inventions (London), volume 2, Number 42, April 23, 1825, page 281.

In 1835, Solyman Merrick, of Springfield, Massachusetts, solved one of the problems inherent in the English wrench.  By adding an adjustment nut to the shaft, just above the handle, he made it possible to adjust the position of the lower-jaw assembly without twisting the handle.  The shaft was therefore more stable during use, reducing inadvertent opening or loosening of the jaws during use.

Loring Coes’ wrench, patented in 1841, solved two more problems.  His wrench was stronger and could be adjusted by the thumb of the hand holding the wrench; leaving the second hand free.  Coes introduced a separate screw-assembly, mounted at the top of the handle, alongside the shaft.  The screw assembly moved the lower jaw portion of the wrench up and down along the shaft.  Since the shaft was not threaded and did not have to be round, as with earlier wrenches, the shaft could be made flat and wider in the direction in which torque was applied; thereby reducing the likelihood of bending or breaking the shaft.  An actuator wheel located at the bottom of the screw assembly let the user adjust the position of the lower-jaw assembly with the thumb of the same hand that held the wrench: "Look ma, one hand!"

Each type of adjustable monkey wrench, English, Merrick, and Coes, shared one thing in common; a lower-jaw assembly that moved up and down the shaft of the wrench – like a monkey up a tree, or the popular children’s toy, “monkey on a stick.”


“Monkey” Wrench

The most satisfactory suggestion for the meaning of “monkey,” as applied to wrenches (and other tools), comes from comments in a biographical sketch of Loring Coes, published during his lifetime, in 1904:

Henry W. Miller used to say that it was called “monkey” wrench because an Englishman by the name of Monkay made a wrench having an adjustable jaw, but requiring both hands for its application, and the transition from Monkay to “monkey” was very easy, but the student of mechanics must know that at least a dozen contrivances are labeled “monkey,” especially wherever a portion of the same can be easily moved upon the other, there being a suggestion of the monkey on a stick, that favorite toy of childhood.

“Worcester County Inventors,” George F. Hoar, The New England Magazine, N.S. Volume 31, Number 4, December 1904, page 490.


Monkey on a Stick

A “monkey on a stick” was a popular childrens’ toy for decades; inspiring several other figurative uses as well:

The Sweep.

“A life on the chimney top
    A home in the sooty flue,
Where the wind blows down the ‘cock,’
    And the sky a top shines blue.

Like a monkey on a stick,
    I pine on the dull tame ground,
O, give me the smell of brick,
    And the ashes a settlin’ round.”

Squatter Sovereign (Atchison, Kansas), October 23, 1855, page 1.


Up and Down. – The Commercial [(a newspaper)] during the whole progress of the war has enacted the part of a wooden-monkey attached to a stick, manipulated by a string in the hands of a small boy.  It has a penchant for climbing up and dropping down that has made it a wooden-monkey reputation.

Dayton Daily Empire, November 13, 1862, page 1.


Willie had a purple monkey climbing on a yellow, stick.
    And when he sucked the paint all off, it made him deathly sick;
And in his latest hours he clasped that monkey in his hand,
    And bid good-bye to earth and went into a better land.

Eaton Weekly Democrat (Eaton, Ohio), November 28, 1872, page 1.


As an amusing novelty, the beautiful person sometimes wears a brooch which represents a flexible gold monkey on a stick tipped with pearls; the animal is jointed and moves at will.

St. Paul Daily Globe, September 6, 1885, page 12.

A monkey on a stick also has some similarity to jockeys who stand up on short-stirrups and lean forward over the shoulders of a racehorse:

River Pirate was to-day a god colt and was ridden by Colburn in a new style, which worked well.  This is called in England the “monkey on a stick” style.[ix]

The San Francisco Call, October 17, 1903, page 9.

All of which does not prove that a “monkey on a stick” inspired the name, monkey wrench; but it at least illustrates that the “monkey on a stick” was sufficiently popular and well-known, so that it is plausible that it could have inspired the name monkey wrench.

The Cairo Bulletin (Cairo, Illinois), January 1, 1904



 

Other “Monkey” Machines

Although I have not been able to find the “dozen contrivances” said to share the name, “monkey,” I was able to find a few; most notably, pile drivers and similar devices:

The machine is worked with high-pressure steam, which . . . raises the piston and ‘monkey.’  When the piston reaches the height intended, it shuts the induction . . . and the monkey falls.

John Weale, Rudimentary Dictinoary of Terms Used in Architecture, &c., London, J. Weale, 1850.

The term “monkey” was not limited to large, steam-powered pile drivers.  The term had earlier been used in manual pile-drivers, and was also applied to large and small devices that used a similar weight moving up and down, guided on a pole or between two supports.  The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition, includes an entry for, “monkey-engine, a form of pile-driver having a monkey or ram moving in a wooden frame (Knight Dict. Mech. 1875).”  A how-to guide for making rockets or pyrotechnics described the use of a small, manually operated, “monkey machine,” that appears to operate under the same principle as a pile-driver:

To make them, erect a small monkey machine, two uprights . . . [a] piece of beech for monkey . . . sliding up and down between uprights . . . .  A ring and cord are fixed to monkey to raise it by the pulley, and a pin or other contrivance for keeping the monkey suspended when required.

William E. A. Axon, The Mechanic’s Friend, New York, 1875, page 292.

A technical encyclopedia described the process of drilling tube-wells:

The process of driving tube-wells resembled pile-driving, but with the distinction, that, while piles received the blows of the monkey on their heads, the tubes are not struck at all, the blow being communicated by the clamp, which receives the blow near the ground.

Appleton’s Cyclopaedia of Applied Mechanics, Volume 2 (G-Z), New York, Appleton & Co., 1882, page 928.

The following images illustrate the similarity between and among three types of monkey wrenches, a tube-well drilling apparatus, and a “monkey on a stick.”  The three representative wrenches, Hewet (1840)[x] (with rotating handle, similar to the English wrenches), Merrick (1835)[xi], and Coes (1841)[xii], each have a lower-jaw assembly grasping the shaft and moving up and down along the shaft, much like a “monkey on the stick.”  The tube-well drill has a weight, or “monkey,” supported by and moving up and down along a shaft, much like a “monkey on a stick.”  The “monkey on a stick” has a monkey that moves up and down along the shaft of a stick: 




Conclusion

It is nearly certain that Charles Moncky (or Monkay) of Brooklyn did not invent, coin, or inspire the term, monkey wrench; despite the actual existence of Charles Monk, the tool-maker from Brooklyn.  That story may have been fabricated as a joke, given his tool-related occupation and playing on the similarity of his last-name to the well-known wrench; or could have, I suppose, been an honest mistake made somewhere along the line.  In any case, he was too young to have been responsible for either the expression or the tool. 

The three general types of monkey wrench, English, Merrick and Coes, all share similarities with the children’s toy, “monkey on a stick.”  Pile-drivers, well-drillers, monkey engines and monkey machines also share similar attributes.  They all have a movable “monkey” that climbs up and down along shaft; like a monkey climbing a tree - or a “monkey on a stick.”  The theory is at least simple, consistent across several different contexts, and plausible. 

It is also (for what it's worth) the most sensible explanation I have seen.  It's possible.

You be the judge.


----------------------------------------

Post Script:

A reader mentioned that they had always assumed that the name came from the long handle, which made it look like this:


The Sentiment is shared by others: "This item, with its rounded head and 'twist the tail' (handle) to adjust the mouth feature, could easily inspire the image of a monkey." See, e.g., Page, Herb. (Fall 2005). Reach for the wrench: Vintage auto wrenches. The Fine Tool Journal, pg. 16-18. (Excerpt at Davistownmuseum.org).

My sense is that whatever the initial impulse to name the wrench, the name may have stuck because it resonated in several ways; the "monkey" moves up and down the shaft, you twist the monkey's tail, it looks like a monkey, monkeys have a strong grip, and monkeys are funny.



[ii] “Worcester County Inventors,” George F. Hoar, The New England Magazine, N.S. Volume 31, Number 4, December 1904, page 490.
[iii] Michael Quinion's WorldWideWords.org dates monkey wrench in the United States to "an issue of the Natchez Daily Courier for 1838."  The word may be even older.  Dave Wilton’s Wordorigins.org notes the term in, “a citation believed to be from 1807 that appears in E. S. Dane’s Peter Stubs & Lancashire Hand Tool Industry: Fleetwood, Richard…Parr, Rainford. Screw plates, lathes, clock engines…monkey wrenches, taps.  The book they cite, however, was published in 1973.  The “believed to be” caveat used for the excerpt relied on may be significant.  Merriam Webster’s online dictionary also lists the date of first use for monkey wrench as 1807; apparently based on the same source of unknown reliability.  The Oxford English Dictionary, 3nd Edition, marks the date with a question mark.
[iv] See, e.g. Francis Whishaw, The Railways of Great Britain and Ireland, Second Edition, London, John Weale, 1842, page 211; August Chevalier, Mémoire sur l'exploitation des chemins de fer anglais, Paris, Carilian-Goeury, 1847, page 36; Scribner’s Engineers’ and Mechanics’ Companion, New York, Huntington & Savage, 1849, page 201; Rules and Regulations to be Observed by the Officers and Men in the Employ of this Company, Hamilton, Ontario, Great Western Railway Company, 1858 page 42.
[v] The Power Plant, Volume 9, Number 1, January 1917, page 24.
[vi] New York Tribune, July 14, 1906, page 7.
[vii] Charles G. Washburn, Industrial Worcester, Worcester, The Davis Press, 1917.
[viii] A thorough discussion and exhaustive bibliography of tool-history sources can be found on the website of the Davistown Museum, a tool, art, and regional history museum located in Hull Cove Maine. See, e.g., “The Boston Wrench Group,” http://www.davistownmuseum.org/bioBostonWrench.htm.
[ix] The style was apparently pioneered in England by American Jockey, Tod Sloan, who caused a sensation in England in the late-1890s (“A ‘monkey on a stick’ is what the wise sporting writers called him, because he did not ride with long stirrups, sitting upright, as the English jockeys had been doing from time immemorial.”).   Tod Sloan was the inspiration for George M. Cohan’s play, Little Johnnie Jones, that introduced the song, “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy;” the play helped popularize the expressions, “twenty-three” and “skidoo” in the mid-19-aughts (see my earlier post).
[x] US Patent 1659, June 27, 1840, Screw-Wrench, Henry W. Hewet.
[xi] US Patent 9030X, August 17, 1835, Wrench, Merrick.
[xii] US Patent 2054, April 16, 1841, Method of Constructing Screw-Wrenches, Loring Coes.

1 comment:

  1. I am in awe of this beautifully-told, exhaustively-researched article. Bravo!

    P.S. I had a "monkey-on-a-stick" plaything when I was a very young child in 1961.

    ReplyDelete