The Soul of a New Hand Tool
Hand levels are one of the standard tools in the kits of house builders, plumbers, and many other tradespeople. Until 1990, all levels were bubble-type spirit levels. But in that year, a California carpenter, Andy Butler, and some Silicon Valley engineers patented a new level that depended on high-tech electronics to show digitally the precise angle of the surface being checked.
The "SmartLevel," as the new tool was named, found a market among users of traditional levels who needed precise degree measurements. Butler and his colleagues, more interested in developing a new idea than amassing a fortune, sold the SmartLevel line and moved onto new projects.
The SmartLevel story gives excellent insight into the life cycle of a small Silicon valley start-up in the 1980s. SmartLevel’s creator, Wedge Innovations, established a market for a new product, achieved national distribution, off-shore manufacturing, and product licensing, before going out of business due to pressure from profit-hungry venture capitalists.
In 1995, the Lemelson Center supported oral history interviews with Andy Butler and other key individuals involved with the development, manufacture, and marketing of this new generation of digital hand tool. The interviews, an archive of original documents, drawings, photographs, and other records, several generations of SmartLevels, hardware store display elements, and sales training videotapes are now preserved in the Archives Center of the National Museum of American History.
The records of Wedge Innovations is a “tool biography” that documents the invention and development of a new hand tool, the SmartLevel, an electronic builder’s level first conceived in 1985 by Andrew Butler. The SmartLevel Collection is divided into seven series: Corporate Records, Engineering Records, Financial Records, Marketing Records, Operations Records, Product Development Records, and Corporate Culture, reflecting both the organizational structure of Wedge Innovations and the company’s working environment.
Go to the finding aid for Records of Wedge Innovations >>
Originally published in Fall 1995.