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Inventor of the Gordon Wrench

Robert Melvin Gordon ’49

A picture of Robert Gordon

Robert Melvin Gordon ’49, September 25, 2009, in Cottage Grove, Oregon.

When Robert cut his hand on a toilet water shutoff valve at age 77, he wasn't thinking about a market niche. He was thinking about how to save his hands the trouble of yanking on sticky valves.

"l just sat for a few minutes and thought," he said.

Why hadn't anyone come up with a device to make turning water shutoff valves easier? It was a good question, considering the number of plumbers out there with scratched-up hands. Frozen shutoff valves are an incredibly common problem. Since the oval-shaped valves, technically called angle stops, aren't used very often, salt from escaping water accumulates, sticking the handles firmly shut. To make things more difficult, the fragile handles are usually located in hard-to-reach places, like behind the toilet. So trying to turn a shutoff valve barehanded can be an ordeal. He had scoured hardware stores for a suitable wrench, only to be told that no such thing existed.

So that day in the bathroom he had an idea. He stuck two pieces of plywood together at right angles to each other and made a hole in each piece. Fitted over a sticky angle stop, the wrench worked like a charm. Still, he didn't think much about his invention until he brought out the wrench to help a plumber turn another stuck valve. The plumber was blown away and urged him to take the wrench to market. He also helped Robert give the wrench its name. "If monkey can have a wrench named after him, and Allen can have a wrench named after him," said the plumber, "then Gordon can have a wrench named after him, too." Thus was born the Gordon Wrench.Image of a Gordon Wrench.

Robert found an injection molding company to cast his invention in plastic and set up the Gordon Tool Company in Irvine, California, which has since sold thousands of wrenches.

Although Robert and his wife, Elizabeth R. Browne ’50, both went to Reed, they first met in Los Angeles in 1939 and both served in the military during World War II. They married in 1947 and enjoyed a honeymoon at the Oregon coast over spring break—despite pressure to complete papers for classes at Reed.

After graduating from Reed with a math degree, Robert got interested in the brand-new field of computing and software. He wrote his first line of code in 1953, helped set up University of California-Irvine's first computing center in 1959, spent a few years installing the computing center at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and consulted independently for many years.

In 1978 he invented mNemoDex, or “memory index,” an information retrieval system that garnered a great deal of positive press. But it never achieved the cult status of the Gordon Wrench (catchphrase: “Don't stay home without it!”) that has since been a boon to weekend plumbers everywhere.

“Although more than 25 years have elapsed since I left Reed College,” he wrote in 1975, “the college has never left me. Never, for a minute, have I doubted the profound effect on me of my whole experience at Reed.”

Robert's brother, Edward M. Gordon ’48, also attended Reed. Betty died in 2007. Survivors include two daughters and a son.

Appeared in Reed magazine: June 2010

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