Americana: Wrenching Sears

During his free time as an 18-year-old clerk in a Sears, Roebuck store in Gardner, Mass., Peter Roberts invented a quick-release ratchet wrench that enabled a mechanic to change sockets with one hand. At his boss's suggestion, Roberts offered his invention to Sears. Executives told him that his wrench probably would not sell well and that patents were pending for similar tools. But Sears eventually bought the rights to Roberts' wrench for $10,000.

A year later, Roberts discovered his invention prominently displayed in a Sears catalog. As it turned out, while trying to discourage him about the value of the tool, the...

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