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Will B. Lane Company

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The Will B. Lane Company of Chicago was an early maker of a ratchet screwdriver and socket sets for the automotive market. The company is notable for its early use of cold-broached machined sockets.

Company History

The Will B. Lane Company of Chicago was founded by the eponymous Willey B. Lane, an entrepreneur and inventor who had previously lived in Philadelphia. While in Philadelphia Lane had developed and patented a ratchet screwdriver, and the patent was assigned to J.C. McCarty & Company, a well-known sales agent in New York City. The McCarty company arranged to have the ratchet put into production, and "Lane's Ratchet" products were being publicized as early as 1910.

The first "Lane's Ratchets" were based on patent 969,379, filed in 1909 by Willey B. Lane and issued in 1910, with assignment to J.C. McCarty & Company. The patent was reissued in 1911 as RE13,205, this time with assignment of one half to the McCarty company.

[1910 Notice for Lane's Ratchet and Screwdriver]
Fig. 1. 1910 Notice for Lane's Ratchet and Screwdriver. [External Link]

Fig. 1 shows a notice illustrating the early "Lane's Ratchet" screwdriver and wrench set, as published on page 95 of the June, 1910 issue of Engineering Review.

The text of the notice states that all parts are made by drop-forging, and that the sockets openings are made to accept either square or hex nuts. Note that the sockets in this early set have male drive tangs.

The end of the text notes J.C. McCarty & Company as the manufacturer.

The "Lane's Ratchet" set seems to have had little publicity beyond a few notices in the trade press in 1910. We have found only one advertisement for the tools, which was published on page 447 of the April, 1910 issue of the Automobile Trade Directory. Thus far we've found only one listing for the set in distributor or dealer catalogs.

The Second Generation Lane's Ratchet

With the apparent failure of the first "Lane's Ratchet" product, Lane decided to try again on his own. We thought that this chapter of the story would begin with a move to Chicago, but it turns out that the first "Unique Ratchet" sets were made while Lane was still in Philadelphia.

[April 1914 Ad for Lane Unique Ratchet Wrench Set]
Fig. 2. April 1914 Ad for Lane Unique Ratchet Wrench Set. [External Link]

Fig. 2 shows an ad for the Lane "Unique Ratchet" socket set, as published on page 27 of the April, 1914 issue of Automobile Dealer and Repairer.

The text notes the maker as Lane himself, with an address at 2311 North 16th Street in Philadelphia.

[May 1914 Notice for Lane Unique Ratchet Wrench]
Fig. 3. May 1914 Notice for Lane Unique Ratchet Wrench. [External Link]

Fig. 3 shows a notice for a "Unique Ratchet" set, as published on page 136 of the May, 1914 issue of the Automobile Trade Journal.

Lane's later ratchets were based on a distinctive design described by patent 876,680, filed in 1907 by J.P. Bartholomay and issued in 1908.

The ratchet mechanism was appropriately named "Unique" and used a simple spring-steel wire to set the pawl bias, with the wire set to either side of a fixed post to select the ratchet direction.

The change in the ratchet design was likely necessitated by the assignment of Lane's own ratchet patent to the McCarty company.

The Move to Chicago

Shortly after introducing his second generation "Unique Ratchet" sets, Lane finally relocated from Philadelphia to Chicago and started his own Will B. Lane company, possibly a sole proprietorship. (No notice of incorporation has been found.)

By October of 1914 Lane's Chicago business was up and running, based on the advertisement below.

[October 1914 Ad for Lane Unique Ratchet Wrench]
Fig. 4. October 1914 Ad for Lane Unique Ratchet Wrench.

Fig. 4 shows an ad for the Lane "Unique" ratchet wrench set, as published on page 547 [External Link] of the October, 1914 edition of the Automobile Trade Directory.

The text of the ad touts a "great improvement" and appears to be making comparisons to the older McCarty production. The ad also notes that Lane was previously in Philadelphia.

The company address is listed as 180 North Dearborn Street in Chicago.

Cold-Broached Socket Construction

In addition to the change in the ratchet design, the later Lane sets used a different method for making the sockets. Instead of drop-forged sockets with a male drive tang, the later sockets were machined and broached from bar steel.

The sockets in the Lane sets used a 1/2-hex drive size and were machined from steel bars, then broached to size and hardened. Cold-broaching was a novel technique for socket construction in the years before 1920, but became the dominant technology in the 1920s through mid 1930s.

[1914 Notice for Will B. Lane Socket Set]
Fig. 5. 1914 Notice for Will B. Lane Socket Set. [External Link]

Fig. 5 shows a notice describing the Lane "Unique" socket set, as published on page 57 of the December 25, 1914 issue of The Automobile Journal.

The text notes that the sockets were machined from bar steel, then cold-broached and hardened, making this one of the earliest known references to cold-broached sockets.

With the introduction of the "Unique" socket sets in April of 1914, we believe that Lane was the first to make machined and cold-broached sockets for the automotive market.

Competition from R.F. Sedgley

Within about two years of the introduction of the Lane "Unique" socket sets, R.F. Sedgley was offering a similar line of "Hexall" socket sets. But even before then, in December of 1914 Henry M. Kolb began advertising a "K & S" socket set very similar to Lane's set.

Kolb was a firearms maker who owned a factory in Philadelphia with R.F. Sedgley as the foreman. Kolb and Sedgley had collaborated on the patented ratchet in the "Kolb & Sedgley" set, which consisted of a ratchet handle, seven sockets, and two screwdriver bits in a small cloth-covered box. As can be seen in the illustration, the "K & S" Set very closely resembles the "Unique Ratchet" sets from Lane. (Sedgley later succeeded Kolb in the business after the latter's retirement.)

The close resemblance between the two companies' sets is not at all coincidental. After the recent discovery (January 2022) of a April 1914 advertisement for the "Unique Ratchet" set while Lane was still in Philadelphia, we were startled to observe that Lane's address in the ad is the same as Kolb and Sedgley's address at 2311 North 16th Street!

With the additional knowledge that Kolb had been established at this address since 1910, we think it's highly likely that Will B. Lane actually worked for Kolb and Sedgley while he was in Philadelphia, possibly as a machinist. Other interpretations are possible of course, but it's virtually certain that Lane would have been acquainted with Kolb and Sedgley.

Kolb and Sedgley filed the application for their ratchet patent in the same month that Lane first advertised the "Unique Ratchet" set, showing that the two were already planning a competing product. We think the most likely interpretation of these events is that Lane originally planned to produce his sets in Kolb's factory, but was unable to reach mutually agreeable terms with Kolb and Sedgley. When the talks reached an impasse, Kolb and Sedgley began planning their socket set, and Lane was forced to move to Chicago.

There is probably more to this story than what we have outlined above, and we hope to find further information on the connections between Lane and Kolb/Sedgley.

Drop-Forged Ratchet Handles

By around mid 1918 Lane ratchets were being made with drop-forged handles, based on the description and illustration in an advertisement from August of 1918. The drop-forged construction can be recognized by an oval depressed panel near the end of the handle, with markings forged into the panel area. (Earlier construction used flat handles with stamped markings.)

Lane Unique Tool Company

By 1920 Lane had finally been incorporated as the Will B. Lane Unique Tool Company.

[1920 Notice for Lane Unique Tool Company]
Fig. 6. 1920 Notice for Lane Unique Tool Company. [External Link]

Fig. 6 shows the entry for the Will B. Lane Unique Tool Company, as published on page 947 of the 1920 List of Foreign and Domestic Corporations from the State of Illinois.

[July 1921 Advertisement for Lane Unique Socket Sets]
Fig. 7. July 1921 Advertisement for Lane "Unique" Socket Sets. [External Link]

Later public references list the company address as 170 West Randolph Street in Chicago.

The advertisement in Fig. 7 was published on page 52 of the July 1921 issue of Commercial America and provides illustrations for several of the company's socket sets, all built around the "Unique" ratchet.

[1921 Obituary for Will B. Lane]
Fig. 8. November 1921 Obituary for Will B. Lane. [External Link]

Fig. 8 shows an obituary notice for Will B. Lane, as published on page 1368 of the November 24, 1921 issue of The Iron Trade Review.

After the death of the company founder, the company continued with C.D. Lane as president, based on the entry in the 1922 List of Foreign and Domestic Corporations.

The Lane company appears to have been reasonably successful, as their products were widely available from distributors and dealers. The company remained in business until at least the mid 1920s, and as late as 1926 was advertising its products in Popular Mechanics.


Will B. Lane Company: Issued and Licensed Patents
Patent No.InventorFiledIssuedNotes and Examples
876,680 J.P. Bartholomay10/14/190701/14/1908 Ratcheting Screwdriver
Lane "Unique" 1/2-Hex Drive Ratchet
969,379 W.B. Lane01/02/190909/06/1910 Ratchet Mechanism
Assigned to J.C. McCarty & Company.
RE13,205 W.B. Lane01/10/191102/14/1911 Ratchet Mechanism
Assigned one half to J.C. McCarty & Company.


In 1920 Willey Bell Lane received trademark #130,995 for "Unique" in a stylized form. The first use date was listed as September 12, 1910.

Will B. Lane Company: Registered Trademarks
Text Mark or Logo Reg. No. First Use Date Filed Date Issued Notes
Unique 130,995 09/12/191008/08/191903/04/1920 "Unique" in a stylized form.
Filed by Willey Bell Lane.

References and Resources

Photographs and observations of particular tools are based on items in the Alloy Artifacts Collection.

Catalog Resources

Currently we do not have any catalogs for the Will B. Lane Company.

Industrial Distributors

Lane's "Unique" socket sets were widely available from industrial distributors. We'll add references as time permits.

Selected Tools

Currently we have only a limited selection of Lane's "Unique" tools, and so will supplement this section with some catalog listings as placeholders.

Early "Lane's Unique" Male-Drive Tool Set

Just when we thought we had the Lane company figured out, we turned up a catalog listing for a previously unknown product.

[1914 Catalog Listing of Lane Male-Drive Tool Set]
Fig. 9. 1914 Catalog Listing of Lane Male-Drive Tool Set.

The scan in Fig. 9 shows a catalog listing for an early Lane male-drive tool kit, as published on page 1333 of the 1914 catalog No. 104 from Wyeth Hardware.

The illustration shows the tools in a fold-up kit with clips to hold the various tools, consisting of a hammer/Tee handle driver, five hex sockets, and two screwdriver bits.

The set is marked "Lane's Unique Tool Set" on the inside of the lid.

The discovery of this tool set raises a number of questions. The male-drive sockets are obviously from the first-generation McCarty era, but was this set created by J.C. McCarty, perhaps as a way of using up leftover inventory? If so, why call label it "Lane's Unique"? (Without a ratchet, there is nothing from Lane in the set.)

Or was this Lane the entrepreneur, experimenting with different ways to build a compact set of tools? We hope to find further information to help resolve these questions.

Lane Early "Unique" Style "S" 1/2-Hex Drive Socket Set

[Lane Early Unique Ratchet Screwdriver]
Fig. 10. Lane Early "Unique" 1/2-Hex Drive Socket Set, ca. 1914 to Mid 1918.

Fig. 10 shows an early Lane "Unique" 1/2-hex Drive socket set, consisting of a ratchet, six hex sockets, and two screwdriver bits. The set is marked "Unique Ratchet" on the inside of the lid, and the ratchet is stamped with a "Pat. Jan. 14, '08" patent notice. The sockets and screwdriver bits are unmarked.

Based on a 1921 Lane advertisement, this set is their Style "S" socket set, but with one socket (7/16) missing.

The socket sizes are, from the left, 1/2, 9/16, 5/8, 11/16, 3/4, and 7/8. (A 7/16 socket is missing.) The sockets have a polished steel finish and are unmarked.

The patent date corresponds to patent 876,680, filed by J.P. Bartholomay in 1907 and issued the following year.

[Top Cover of Lane Unique 1/2-Hex Drive Socket Set]
Fig. 11. Top Cover of Lane "Unique" 1/2-Hex Drive Socket Set, ca. 1914 to Mid 1918.

Fig. 11 shows the top cover of the Lane "Unique" 1/2-hex Drive socket set. The box is constructed of fabric-covered paperboard with wooden ends, with dimensions (in inches) 8.5 wide by 1.9 deep by 1.2 high.

Lane Early "Unique" 1/2-Hex Ratchet

[Lane Early Unique 1/2-Hex Drive Ratchet]
Fig. 12. Lane Early "Unique" 1/2-Hex Drive Ratchet, with Insets for Back Side and Side View, ca. 1914 to Mid 1918.

Fig. 12 shows the early Lane "Unique" 1/2-hex drive ratchet from the Style "S" socket set, marked only with a "Pat. Jan. 14, '08" patent date stamped on the handle.

The overall length is 7.4 inches, and the finish is plain steel.

The patent date corresponds to patent 876,680, filed by J.P. Bartholomay in 1907 and issued the following year.

This ratchet is believed to represent the company's earlier production, as examples made after about mid 1918 had markings forged into a depressed panel on the handle.

Lane Unique Ratchet Screwdriver

[Lane Unique Ratchet Screwdriver]
Fig. 13. Lane "Unique" Ratchet Screwdriver, with Inset for Back Side, ca. Mid 1918 to 1920s.

Fig. 13 shows a Lane "Unique" ratcheting screwdriver, marked with "Will B. Lane" and "Chicago Ill. U.S.A." forged into the handle, with a "Pat. Jan. 14, 08" patent notice below.

The back side is marked with "Unique" forged into the handle.

The overall length is 7.3 inches, and the finish is plain steel.

The patent date corresponds to patent 876,680, filed by J.P. Bartholomay in 1907 and issued the following year.

The ratchet handle with forged-in markings indicates production after around mid 1918.

Lane Style "C" Socket Set

After years of making socket sets with the "Unique" ratchet handle as the only drive tool, by 1925 Lane was offering a set with a folding Tee handle, an extension, and a universal, in addition to the ratchet.

[1925 Catalog Listing of Lane Style C Socket Set]
Fig. 14. 1925 Catalog Listing of Lane Style "C" Socket Set.

The scan in Fig. 14 shows a listing for the Lane Style "C" socket set, as published on page 659 of the 1925 catalog No. 51 from Samuel Harris & Company of Chicago.

Although not noted in the description, the set included a "Unique" ratchet, a Tee handle, a universal, an extension, and a drive plug.

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