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Technology's Bit Players: Changing Our Way of Life

July 22, 1988|PAUL CIOTTI | Times Staff Writer

It isn't the big stuff. It's the tiny technological advances that change people's lives.

Don't believe it? Take the case of drills powered with nickel-cadmium batteries and tempered-steel drywall screws. In combination, they have quietly made life swifter, easier and better for a range of folk, from industrial workers to artists to home do-it-yourselfers.

"They're great," Claremont artist Michael Woodcock says of the drills. "You feel like you're a spaceman or something. Some of them have belt clips so you can wear them like a pistol."

John Temple, a crafts instructor at Cal State Fullerton, recently assembled a prefabricated sink base-cabinet in a single afternoon with a cordless drill and Phillips head screws. "If I had to do it with a screwdriver, my arm would have fallen off. There were hundreds of screws. It would have taken me two days."

'I'm a Believer'

Michael McMillen, a Santa Monica artist and model builder, was introduced to the cordless drill and drywall screw while working in the movie industry. "We were working under these complicated sets," he said. "It was very tiresome to crawl around underneath them dragging a cable. With a cordless drill, though, you can just pass it through a hole to your buddy. Or put it in a holster and climb up a ladder. I'm a believer."

Although awesome, spectacular technologies like nuclear weapons get all the attention, they have little impact on most lives because they never have been used, says Daniel Kevles, a historian of science at Caltech. In contrast, "little-sung and little-celebrated" technologies, such as cordless drills, have "infinitely more" impact.

"The significance of things like cordless drills," says John Lyman, an engineer and psychologist at UCLA, "is independence. . . . That is the key to the whole thing. If you have your own personal capability, you get a sense of pride and control. The notion of being able to do something for yourself is pretty fundamental."

Industry has long known about cordless drills. They're used for everything from assembling aircraft to building automobiles on assembly lines. But it wasn't the drill alone that created a small home-crafts revolution in recent years. It was the combination of the nickel-cadmium battery-powered drill and the heat-treated, narrow-shank, black-phosphate-coated drywall screw.

Such screws have been around a long time. They were developed for commercial use to attach sheets of drywall to metal studs. The screws were so sharp and strongly made that they didn't need a pilot hole; they went right into wood, plaster, aluminum and thin steel. In short order, carpenters, plumbers, electricians and all other sorts of craft workers were using them for everything but drywall.

Enter battery-powered cordless drills. The nickel-cadmium batteries used in the drills were developed in the '50s to use in satellites along with solar cells.

Then in the '60s, Black & Decker built a battery-powered drill for Apollo astronauts to use to take core samples on the moon. Being lower-powered, they were geared for a slower r.p.m. than conventional drills, which made them perfect for lower speeds needed to drive narrow-shank drywall screws.

Despite their auspicious lineage, the first cordless drills were a disappointment. "Ten years ago," Pasadena tool retailer Brad Lansill says, "battery-powered tools were kid toys--slow and wimpy." The nickel-cadmium cells also were slow to recharge, and as they depleted, the already low-power drills ran slower and slower.

But over the years, what Lyman calls "very subtle gradual improvements" in materials and mixtures have enabled engineers to pack more power in the cells and to reduce recharging times without causing the cells to overheat.

Less Time to Recharge

As a result, the time required to recharge a cordless drill battery pack has dropped from 16 hours to three hours, then one hour. And within six months, says Dick Bonfield, a Black & Decker salesman in Orange County, it will be possible to recharge a battery in as little as 15 minutes. Further, unlike some earlier versions, the new batteries also will let the tools operate at close to full power right up to the moment when the battery is exhausted.

Now, says Will Hill, a Black & Decker product manager, the annual market for cordless power tools (primarily drills and cordless screwdrivers) is up to $200 million.

Mike Hanley, Southern California sales manager for the Grabber, a supplier to the construction trades, estimates his company alone sells "in excess of 10 million (drywall screws) a day."

The film and television industry uses the drills and screws for putting up and taking down sets. "You almost never hear anyone hammering anymore," says Tony Porter, a videotape editor for the "Alf" television show.

A Student Fad

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