An Ode to Rivets
“She wants to meet me at the top of the Empire State Building. On Valentine's Day.” - Sleepless in Seattle
What do the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Empire State Building all have in common? For starters, these three iconic structures lace the love stories of countless couples around the world.
Paris at twilight evokes romance in any language. There are as many as 10,000 proposals at or around the base of the Eiffel Tower every year. The Golden Gate Bridge is the gateway of the West as ships from every port glide under its passageway, many carrying passengers seeking a new life - and love - in the Golden City.
If you’ve ever seen An Affair to Remember or Sleepless in Seattle, you know that iconic scene. A hope-filled lover nervously waits at the top of the Empire State Building for the one to arrive. Whether it’s Tom Hanks or Cary Grant, Meg Ryan or Deborah Kerr, a complete stranger or the one who’s captured your heart, you know the whimsical heights of love found at the top.
What these three iconic structures also have in common is their love of rivets. To this day, the top of the Empire State Building is where many couples say “Yes!” to their forever loves, a dream that would never have soared without the gift of rivets. There are over 100,000 rivets embedded in the skeletal steel of the Empire State Building. While the Art Deco facade is the true architectural style of the Empire State Building, deep inside its structure is the same love for rivets as the Romans, Persians, and Egyptians.
This is a love letter - an ode, as it were - to the rivet.
Search anywhere throughout modern architecture and you will find rivets. From the Empire State Building to the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge, ocean liners, skyscrapers, and everyday blue jeans, the rivet continues making its mark on history.
How can something so simple find its way into the hands of blue-collar craftsmen and a Savile Row couturieres with equal reverence? So much of our world today is possible because of the rivet. Wars were won because of rivets. Dictators were defeated because of rivets. Stars were born, legends were launched, skylines shaped, disasters averted, fortunes found, and love ignited - all because rivets did their part in this great play we call life.
What follows is a deep dive to the timeless design and impact of rivets in every area of industry, history, and likely your own memories. Raise a glass, open your eyes, and see the indelible impact of rivets that are still shaping much of the world’s future today.
Part 2 | The Timeless History of the Rivet
Did you know the rivet is older than all of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World? The Colosseum, the Parthenon, and the Great Wall of China are all younger than the first rivets.
Why would a 5,000-year-old invention still be in such high demand today? Think of all the inventions from ancient times that carry the same clout and staying power. Paper, the wheel, door locks, maps, concrete, the compass - these are all inventions founded around the same time as the rivet, an exclusive club we take for granted.
The zipper, the button, the latch pin, the clasp - these are all great inventions, but none can compare to the rivet. A rivet starts as a cylinder, usually metal, with a mushroom-shaped head and a long tapered stem or ‘tail’. A rivet is inserted in a hole through either drilling, punching, or simply slipping it into place. For many pieces of machinery, this is the first in a long line of steps, but not the rivet.
The tail is then compressed or ‘bucked’ into place with a hammer, drill, or a simple punch-press. This creates a dumbbell shape. That’s all there is to making a rivet: insert tail, compress the tail to make a second head, and your work is done.
If that’s where we left this story, we would far understate the rivet’s origin story. To truly appreciate the rivet’s impact on our world, we need to rewind history and start from the beginning.
The Egyptians invented wooden rivets around 3,000 BC to hold together fishing boats, large caravan carts, and everyday tools and devices, including rakes, spades, and carrying containers. It’s likely the first rivets were well in place while fishermen rowed down the Nile during the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
The ancient Persians used rivets in their armor, chariots, and common construction. The legendary King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans used rivets in their everyday armor garments. Archaeological evidence suggests that King Darius of Persia even fastened an artisan rendering of his likeness to his chariot’s side using rivets.
This fascinating fastener was further adopted by the ancient Romans in different architecture and craftsmanship, stretching across much of Europe into the Gaul region of France. The Romans fashioned the first type of chainmail armor called lorica hamata, a loop-and-hook style of metal meshing fastened to large plates of metal as part of their everyday garments. How was the lorica hamata secured to these large pieces of metal? Rivets.
Rivets were used in the Roman ornamental headdress and neckwear as well as in the shin wear (greaves). Leather straps were fastened into the shallow sides of greaves with a looped buckle that needed to rotate and swivel with a soldier’s movements without sacrificing strength and durability. The most reliable fastener for the job? The rivet.
The Roman use of rivets extended far beyond armor into common construction and daily life. The Colosseum includes massive travertine stonework held together with iron clamps using rivets. If you could travel back to watch chariot races in the Colosseum, you would see many of the chariots reinforced with rivets. According to incredible research done by Vrije Universiteit in Brussel, Belgium, the Romans “designed a kind of rivet mould – the ancestor of the cup tool commonly called these days “bouterolle” – to joint metallic plates (boilerwork).”
With the fall of the Roman Empire, humanity expanded further into western and northern Europe. As early as the seventh century AD, the Vikings used a form of riveting to install wooden planks and even metal sheeting on their boats. A recent archaeological discovery of an Icelandic Viking ship shows the only salvageable detail was a set of rusty rivets. While the rest of the boat decayed, it was the rivets that continued holding their place approximately 1,300 years later.
My friend, we call that durability. As humanity created newer technologies and greater advancements, the rivet’s golden era was only just beginning…
Part 3 | Skylines and Golden Gates: Rivets in Architecture Around the World
Scan any cityscape across America and you will see the handiwork of riveters. While newer pinnacles of architecture reframe the sunset every year, rivets created the most iconic skylines in the world. This is our Tour de Rivets highlighting the buildings and monuments that owe a great deal to this simple fastener.
Rivets in 30 Rockefeller Plaza
“Lunch Atop a Skyscraper” is one of the most unforgettable photos from the Great Depression. Eleven construction workers sit on a jutting beam seemingly hundreds of feet above the ground on 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Guess what they used to install that beam? Rivets.
This photo ignited hope for the future during one of the darkest times in America. Danger was a constant threat, as they were for the men on that beam, but it was the strength of rivets that held the same resolve as the American spirit.
Rivets in the Eiffel Tower
Fifty engineers and designers, 18,038 metallic parts, 5,300 workshop designs, 7,300 tons of iron, and 2,500,000 rivets - these are awe-inspiring statistics. The vision of the Eiffel Tower first came to light while preparing for the World Fair in 1889. The challenge seemed simple enough: could an architect design and complete a beautiful structure that stood 300 meters or taller on the Champ-de-Mars lawn? More importantly, if even possible, could it be done before the 1889 World Fair in Paris?
There were 107 total proposals, but it was the brilliance of Gustave Eiffel’s proposal that won the project. Eiffel, a local entrepreneur, presented his proposal along with two engineers Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nouguier, and an architect named Stephen Sauvestre. What could hold such a monument together for centuries? The rivet. Eiffel and his team succeeded - and the Eiffel Tower is the very symbol of Paris.
Rivets in the Golden Gate Bridge and Across Three Rivers
The Golden Gate Bridge was built with over 600,000 rivets in each of its two towers. It was both the longest and tallest suspension bridge in the world when it opened in 1937, a feat made possible by the power of rivets.
During its 75th anniversary celebration, the city of San Francisco paid special tribute to the riveting technique and workers that built the bridge. Over a billion cars have passed through the Golden Gate Bridge, most of which don’t realize the same technology that carried the glory of Rome and navigated the waters of the Nile makes their travel possible.
The romance of the Golden Gate doesn’t exist without ‘Steel Tahn’ Pittsburgh. If you’ve ever visited this Mecca of blue-collar builders, you recognize work that lasts beyond a lifetime. Pittsburgh is known for being at the confluence of three rivers: the Allegheny, the Monongahela (the ‘Mon’), and the Ohio. With a growing population in the 1880s, city planners knew steel was the future and their city needed bridges if it wanted to thrive.
Enter Gustav Lindenthal and his masterpiece: the Smithfield Street Bridge, the first steel bridge ever built in America. How could such a large free-standing bridge match the durability of steel? Rivets slotted inside massive steel plates connected the lenticular truss design with unparalleled longevity. The Smithfield Street Bridge is still in use today nearly 150 years later bringing Pittsburgh together every day.
Rivets in the Sydney Harbour Bridge
See the breath-taking views of Sydney, Australia and you will find rivets. The Sydney Harbour Bridge contains over six million hand-driven rivets. The rivets were red with extreme heat before the craftsmen inserted the rivets in place. This type of ‘hot riveting’ was a pioneer in Australian architecture as the Sydney Harbour Bridge was the largest steel structure that used rivets. Structural welding was not yet reliable enough to provide a viable option, and in the spirit of caution, chief architect John Bradfield of the New South Wales Department of Public Works chose rivets over welding to build the bridge.
Between tapes, screws, bolts, high-tension cabling, and welding, is there a future for the rivet in building? In one specific industry, there is a bright future. To understand this need, we take to the skies…
Part 4 | Rivets Above the Clouds
Flying on a commercial airliner doesn’t happen without rivets. Did you know the average 747 jumbo jet has more than three million rivets? Rivets are still used to fasten windshield glass for cockpits, gangway doors, safety lighting, wings, flaps, virtually anything you can think of that needs fastened in or on an airplane. This is no accident, nor is it a legacy industry refusing to evolve.
Why does the aviation industry still use rivets instead of welding? The answer lies in physics. Most aircraft is made with aluminum, a lightweight, highly flexible, yet durable metal that melts in extreme heat. That automatically disqualifies welding and shows why rivets are the most reliable fastener in the aviation industry.
When the Wright brothers proved humans can fly, it sparked a race to the skies. During the 1910s, people recognized lighter will always be better for gaining liftoff, withstanding wind shear, and providing a smoother ride for travelers. What could aviation engineers trust to be flexible and durable in the skies? The rivet.
The use of rivets in aviation skyrocketed before the beginning of World War II. Nowhere does riveting more closely connect with early aviation than in the iconic figure of Rosie the Riveter. While we could include her in this section, we recognize Rosie’s place in both history and our love for rivets. In that spirit, we aim to give Rosie her own spotlight as a shining beacon of hope during our nation’s darkest hours and for generations of women well into the 21st century.
Part 5 | Rosie the Riveter
“December 7th, 1941, a date which will live… in infamy.” The words of FDR rang throughout America after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S. entered World War II and the economic focus shifted from pioneering to protecting those we love.
With most able-bodied men heading to Europe and the Pacific, the demand of manufacturing turned to the steely resolve of women. Twenty-year-old Naomi Parker started machinery work at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, California. Wearing a jumpsuit and polka-dotted bandana, Parker crafted her work with grace and precision.
An Acme photographer happened to be on site and captured the image of Parker at work. With her blue jumpsuit and bandana, Parker’s picture inspired a poster from the Westinghouse Electric Corporation recruiting more women to help manufacture military equipment and vehicles.
Then came Norman Rockwell’s painting featured on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post published on May 29th, 1943. It depicts a young woman eating a sandwich while her feet deface a copy of Mein Kampf. Laid across her lap is a rivet gun and her lunch box label reads “Rosie”. Many believe Rockwell’s testament to this icon of Rosie the Riveter connects with the Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb’s song “Rosie the Riveter”.
Rosie the Riveter is greater than any painting or song. She represents the American spirit and courage to stand up to evil. Rosie the Riveter stands for the human drive to fight for what’s good in this world. Whether it’s the actual person of Naomi Parker or the countless women whose efforts helped win the war, Rosie the Riveter is their forever legacy. Rosie’s spirit continues inspiring countless women and men to stand up against injustice, fight for equality, and push for a better tomorrow together.
Part 6 | Unsinkable Rivets on the Ocean Floor
With the invention of the internal combustion engine (ICE) and ocean liners growing in popularity, the rivet quickly made its way into shipyards, onto assembly lines, and high above the clouds. The world of transportation has a fond history of using rivets, from underground to undersea, above the world, and even, deep into space. By the mid-nineteenth century, rivets became the primary method for building multi-story buildings, metal tools, and even vehicles.
New ocean liners and battleships dotted the sea in the early 20th century. Their appetite for speed and comfort demanded large boilers for housing steam and coal to sail the transatlantic currents. Rivets were the only reliable method that could join massive metal plates together to form boilers. Riveters used a technique now known as ‘bouterolle’ to form boilers for locomotives. This amazing use of bouterolle inspired designers to imagine a ship so majestic many believed it to be unsinkable: the Titanic.
To quote some of the leading experts on the RMS Titanic, “If any single part of the Titanic could be said to be the heart and soul of her story, it would be the humble rivet.” Over three million rivets weighing a hearty 1,500 tons stitched the sides of this fated ship. When the Titanic hit the iceberg, rivets holding the Titanic’s side sections gave away and sealed its fate. No fastener or fabric could ever hope to withstand such an impact from that iceberg, but what truly happened?
What few, if any knew at the time was that the rivets trusted to hold the Titanic together were flawed. Thomas Andrews, chief architect of the Titanic, chose to use subpar wrought iron rivets for bonding the ship’s hull and much of its underbelly. While steel rivets were the recommended material, Andrews instead chose to use cheaper wrought iron rivets. Harland and Wolff of Belfast, Northern Ireland, the ship’s builder, was also building two other ships at the same time - and steel rivets were scarce.
National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) metallurgist Tim Foecke performed extensive tests on rivets from the Titanic. Foeke discovered that the Titanic’s wrought iron rivets contained three times “today’s allowable amount of slag (the glassy residue left behind after the smelting of the iron ore).” These rivets became brittle in severely cold temperatures, like the exact temperatures experienced 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland on April 15th, 1912.
Even with flawed material, rivets are an eerie reminder that most material failures are the installer’s fault. The silent testament to the rivet’s designs lies on the ocean floor as much of the Titanic’s hulls remain intact today. Even in failure, rivets continue doing their part.
Part 7 | Rivets in Fashion
On May 20th, 1873 in San Francisco, California, a Bavarian-born dry goods merchant and a local tailor received Patent #139,121 from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Their patent sought to create stronger pants for blue-collar workers.
The tailor thought of installing a fastener at different strain points of the pants, such as the pocket corners and the fly. His idea was a roaring success, but he needed financial backing and a partner willing to take on this new opportunity. The tailor’s name was Jacob Davis, a name you likely don’t recognize, but you know the dry goods merchant: Levi Strauss.
The timeless strength of simple copper rivets in denim created the birth of blue jeans. Since its inception, Levis has sold “more than 200 million pairs of copper-riveted jeans.” (Levi Strauss & Co.) Yes, Levis has since incorporated buttons, zippers, clasps, and other types of fasteners, but the one thing they have not changed is using rivets.
When was the last time you saw jean rivets fail? Rarely, if ever. Denim wears and fades. It even rips holes around the knees and backside, but jean rivets can last a lifetime.
So, Why The Love For Rivets?
When something is consistent and timeless, it’s easy to take it for granted until it fails. Why do we use rivets for Hammitt products? Its timeless design, unparalleled reputation, and incredible heritage.
Others may say better technology is available. We recognize that and we appreciate new technology just as much as the next designer. What we also recognize is that so much of our world exists today with breathtaking discoveries, sunset-shaping skylines, and even the peace and convenience we enjoy because of the rivet.
We owe a debt of gratitude to the rivet - and we hope this series sparked a fresh appreciation for the rivet.
Photos: Max Kukurudziak and Jeremy Bishop