Granite Geek: The N.H. Inventor Who's Building a Better Screw

Oct 14, 2015

Sometimes it's the most basic of technologies that stand the test of time. Take the simple screw. It’s a bit of metal with threads spiraling down a shaft, and yet it holds together most of the products and tools we use every day. But one New Hampshire inventor is challenging that time-honored design. David Brooks, a reporter for the Concord Monitor and writer at GraniteGeek.org, spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello. 

The inventor’s name is Dale Van Cor. He lives in Winchester. What does he say is wrong with the screw as it’s currently designed?

Well, there’s nothing wrong with it, but he thinks it can be improved. And he’s got three patents on what he calls “total surface contact threads,” which is a redesign on the shape and the angle of the screw thread and the hole it goes into, which he says allows considerably more surface to be contacted between the screw and the hole it's going into. He argues that this makes it a lot stronger because contact is better than dangling loose, rattling, but 20 percent stronger is what he argues. It creates a better seal.

He’s not looking to develop something that you and I can run down and buy at the corner hardware store in order to put together our Ikea [furniture]. He is looking to develop specialty screw threads that can be used in certain applications. For example, if they’re stronger, you can use lighter materials for building bridges and the like, and perhaps more importantly almost if the threat, if the seal is better, liquid is less likely to get in and cause corrosion, which is a major problem in an awful lot of applications.

He points to an extreme example: a nuclear power plant. Once a pipe down in the bowels of a nuclear power plant gets corroded, it’s very expensive to fix. So if you can do anything that will reduce the chances of corrosion and a tighter seal on your threads is one way to do it, that will be good.

He’s launched a crowd-funding website to fund this project, trying to raise $20,000. This isn’t his first time trying.

No, he’s an inventor. He was a software guy, now been seven years working on this. Previously he worked on a new type of transmission but, yeah, crowd-funding for a new screw thread design is kind of unusual, especially if your market is large-scale commercial applications. So what he’s actually trying to do—and let me say, he’s your casual lone inventor. Obviously he has a technical engineering background, has an interesting idea, spends lots and lots and lots of time working on it, but doesn’t have the capital, doesn’t have the financial backing to do anything with it.

But it’s been an obsession of his for seven years.

Obsession sounds a little unpleasant. No. It certainly has been the focus of his life. He made jokes about his wife having to put up with it. Perhaps as interesting as anything is the way he’s approaching it. He’s using Rockethub.com. This Rockethub site—the $20,000 would be nothing to develop an actual product, so what he wants to do instead is to develop a store in which the CAD files are available—the Computer Aided Design files—are available for download for, like, $1 or $10 if you want a personal license to use them.

So that maybe with anyone with a 3D printer could create one of these?

Bingo, exactly. That’s how he’s made a lot of his prototypes. And so, people can do this, start playing with it. He hopes other entrepreneurs, curious engineering types could be able to get it, and say, “Hmmm, this is interesting. My friend who works for a nuclear power company would be interested in this.” Or something like that—and therefore get it out into the commercial marketplace that way, which is an interesting approach.

You write that this is unlikely to succeed. Why so pessimistic, David?

Well, so, first of all, I know nothing whatsoever about this topic, so it’s easy for me to pontificate. As I say, I’m not an engineer, I can’t really judge whether his claims are reasonable or accurate, or whether they are in fact real breakthroughs. I would bet against it, only because screw threads are such an established technology. I mean, talk about mature technologies. They’ve been around since ancient Greeks, Egyptians, I believe, what is now known as "Archimedes' screw" to get water out of canals. It’s been around forever, and the idea that a lone inventor in a little tiny town in the extreme southwest corner of New Hampshire would come up with a really important and useful innovation for a mature technology is extremely unlikely. It does happen, however, so I could easily be very wrong. He could easily have a real breakthrough, but just on odds, I’d say, probably not.

But it’s interesting that he tries and, I think, an example of the way there’s a lot of intelligent and innovative people sort of sprinkled around, that aren’t necessarily part of the pipeline for development at major corporations. There’s a lot of them around New Hampshire and other places, and he’s an interesting example of that.