Why is the pipe wrench often called a monkey wrench? enter image description here

From the Ferris State University Jim Crow Museum website…

Q: Did Jack Johnson invent the wrench?

A: Jack Johnson, the first Black heavyweight boxing champion, patented a wrench (U.S. patent #1,413,121) on April 18, 1922. His patent was not the first for a wrench. Solymon Merrick of Springfield, Massachusetts, patented the first wrench in 1835. Charles Moncky, a Baltimore mechanic, invented the monkey wrench around 1858. Moncky's wrench was named using a purposeful misspelling of his name.

There appear to be 2 common misconceptions based on faulty internet information.

Supposedly there is a racially based myth that the monkey wrench was named after Johnson. However, the name was in use at least 100 years before, and his name only appears tangentially to the topic.

…suggests that African-American boxer Jack Johnson invented the tool, and the racists of the time added the label “monkey” as a racial epithet. However, neither part of this story is strictly true. (1)

The other would seem to be a continuation of the “Moncky” hoax. (2)

…Another hoax suggests that a man named Charles Moncky invented the tool. Historians have found no record of a Charles Moncky living in the area at the time it is said, though researchers found multiple Charles Monks. However, none of the possible Charles Monks can be the inventor. All were children when the tool was invented or born after the term “monkey wrench” was already in circulation. (1)

And yet another inventor was credited with the invention…

The apparent inventor of the monkey wrench is Loring Coes, who invented the tool in 1840 in Worcester, Massachusetts. *That date is about 37 years after the earliest recorded use of the term “monkey wrench”, however we know that this time the name stuck to the tool Coes invented, as its design remained in production by various companies for the next 120 years. (1)

…so it appears the term was already in use to describe the “carriage wrench”.

enter image description here

I thought perhaps it came from the phrase “monkey around”, but I cannot find any use before 1889 on Ngrams.

And it appears that the “smooth lipped” carriage wrench was called a “monkey wrench” at least 37 years before the invention of the modern day toothed-lip pipe wrench. Even though Coes gets the credit for the name, it was in use long before.

So why was it originally called a “monkey wrench” ?

(1) Healthy Handy Man

(2) Wikipedia
(3) Images Wikipedia

  • The earliest U.S. newspaper references to "monkey wrench[es]" that an Elephind search turns up involve a hardware store advertisement that appeared repeatedly in the [Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania] Daily Morning Post, starting in December 1844. – Sven Yargs May 23 '19 at 21:49
  • ...no doubt a product from Loring Coes (1840) @SvenYargs – Cascabel May 23 '19 at 21:50
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    The earliest matches for "monkey wrench" in a British Newspaper Archive search come from the Chester [Cheshire] Chronicle in August 1826. The most descriptive of these is from August 11, 1826, in a summary crime report: "William Darlington, aged fi[fty?], a bricklayer, was charged with stealing a piece of iron, called a monkey wrench, the property of [the] Chester Canal Company." It is not obvious that the "piece of iron" that Darlington allegedly stole was what people might call today a "monkey wrench" rather than, say, a pry bar, a gouge, or some other simpler instrument. ... – Sven Yargs May 23 '19 at 22:13
  • ... It may be worth noting that Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language (1847) offers as the only tool-related definition of wrench "An instrument for screwing or unscrewing iron work, and as one definition of monkey "The weight of a pile driver; i.e., a very heavy mass of iron, which, being on high, descends with great momentum on the head of the pile, and forces it into the earth." The term monkey-wrench, with a modern definition, first appears in the ADEL of 1864. – Sven Yargs May 23 '19 at 22:14
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    I always thought it was because, like a monkey on a branch, it was sure to get a tight grip on anything. – Jim May 23 '19 at 22:30

Etymonline has an interesting suggestion on its possible origin::

Monkey was used in 19c. especially by sailors, as a modifier for various types of small equipment made for specific work (monkey-block, monkey-boat, monkey-spar, etc.), and the same notion probably is behind the name of the tool.

WWW has citations from early 19th century:

In 1973, E Surrey Dane published a book with the snappy title Peter Stubs and the Lancashire Hand Tool Industry, which includes a reference dated 1807 to a firm supplying “Screw plates, lathes, clock engines ... monkey wrenches, taps.” The entry in the online Oxford English Dictionary includes this but with a question mark before the date, which means that their editors have yet to verify it beyond doubt.

There’s then a gap until it turns up in Francis Whishaw’s The Railways of Great Britain and Ireland, dated 1840; , in which he quotes Orders to Enginemen and Firemen issued by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, dated 1837; this includes a list of tools that must be kept in a locomotive cab, including “one large and one small monkey wrench”.

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  • Yes I saw that (first stop). I think there should be a primary source for the Surrey Dane citation for it to actually qualify. Right now it appears the date in in doubt. – Cascabel May 23 '19 at 21:49
  • @Cascabel, it is on page 219: books.google.it/… – user121863 May 23 '19 at 21:56
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    Yes but what I am asking for is a primary source: that appears to self-referencing. <<The entry in the online Oxford English Dictionary includes this but with a question mark before the date, which means that their editors have yet to verify it beyond doubt. >> – Cascabel May 23 '19 at 21:59
  • See the wonderful phrase "Freeze the balls off a brass monkey" – Gort the Robot May 24 '19 at 0:41

A wrench is called a key "Schlüssel" (viz. schließen, Schloss); French mont- appears in Montage (cp. to mount). Thus it may be a mont-key (the t is silent by the way; What's the french equivalent, mont-cleve?), and the other terms noted by etymonline following from reinterpretation as "monkey" in jest.

PS: On second thought, consider the machanism of the thing. I want to say it may use a pin hole mechanism to fix the height, thus making another connection to key, but I'd want to connect mount, as long as key is already explained to satisfaction. There are different mechanisms, a screw or, as depicted above. Looking longer at the mechanism, I could see how the head climbs up (cp cleve again, now for a mondegreen).

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  • The idea that it comes from something-key is pretty clever. I don't think mont as the first word makes much sense ... isn't it much more likely to be an English word? – Peter Shor Feb 11 at 13:39
  • mount, mont, what's the big difference. Or do you have something different in mind? – vectory Feb 11 at 20:37

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