How many times has someone asked you to grab an Allen wrench? Probably a lot, and of course in most cases if you said you’d grabbed an Allen wrench, you would be wrong. Just like asking for a Kleenex, a Band-Aid or a Q-Tip. The recognized brand name is often used for other similar products by different manufacturers, and so the name Allen wrench has come to be used interchangeably with all hex keys, and understandably so as the very first trademarked hex key in the US was made by Allen Manufacturing in 1910. The name has stuck ever since.
Allen was just the first among many as others were developing similar fasteners and hex tools as far back as the 1860s. The move to hex fasteners and drivers around this time seems to be due to the fact that manufacturers were exploring alternative screw drive types, partially to make fasteners that were safer for industrial workers and partially to avoid paying royalties and such to the owners of the trademark for square drive fasteners. At first, the hex key and fastener wasn’t an easy sell, but once they caught on, they’ve stayed and have since become an important staple of the tool world being used for everything from bikes to guns to Ikea furniture.
From their advent in 1910 and subsequent growth from independent development by other manufacturers, the hex key hasn’t undergone much change. You just have your hex keys, usually in an “L”shape and that’s pretty much it. That certainly was the case until 1964 when John Bondhus invented the Balldriver giving hex wrenches a rounded end thus making it possible to twist hex fasteners at a slight angle. Bondhus invented this design after years of working with tools and dies and understood the importance of ensuring the quality of tools. Another variant of the ball end was introduced by Wiha with their Magic Ring. The Magic Ring has a small rubber piece around the ball end to help hold the fastener securely while you twist, making the job that much easier. Wera and Bondhus have started color coding some of the hex keys as well.
Hex keys and fasteners have been around for just over a hundred years and while they were slow to be adopted, they can be found just about everywhere and just like every house has a screwdriver or hammer, every house, by now, should have some hex wrenches of some sort. While there haven’t been a ton of changes to the hex wrench, the few there have been have been game changing innovations that have made the tool and the fastener a better option than other types of fasteners. While there doesn’t seem to be much left to innovate, it will be interesting to see what changes the future of hex wrenches will bring us.