The records of Wedge Innovations document the invention and development of a new hand tool, the SmartLevel, an electronic builder's level; also included are company management and policies.
Scope and Contents:
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.
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.
Series 1, Corporate Records, 1985-1993, address the overall management of Wedge Innovations and document its policies, especially through the company's annual business plans, 1986-1992, and the monthly reports prepared for the Board of Directors' meetings, 1989-1992. This series also details the workings of each department through weekly departmental reports. The staff meetings files, July-November 1989, February 1990-November 1992, are particularly useful for understanding the day-to-day operation of the company.
Series 2, Engineering Records, 1985-1993, document the design and development of the SmartLevel from its conception in 1985 as the WedgeLevel, through its production as the SmartLevel in 1989, and through its refinement into the Pro SmartLevel and the Series 200 SmartLevel in 1991. The design process is particularly well documented through Andrew Butler's and Kevin Reeder's design notebooks and through the detailed technical drawings done by Butler, Reeder, and Ronald Wisnia. Also well documented are the efforts made to solve the many problems associated with the development and quality control of the electronic sensor module that was the heart of the SmartLevel.
Series 3, Financial Records, 1985-1992, include Wedge's summary financial statements from 1985 to 1992.
Series 4, Marketing Records, 1986-1992, document customer and dealer relations through marketing department correspondence, operational records, and advertising campaigns. This series is particularly rich in promotional material (1988-1992), such as advertisements, advertising copy, photographs, product promotion plans, and videotapes that demonstrate the varied features and uses of the products.
Series 5, Operations Records, 1990-1993, document the manufacturing process and the Company's offshore operations.
Series 6, Product Development Records, 1986-1993, document the company's intended development of an entire "Smart Tools" line.
Series 7, Corporate Culture, 1985-1996, contains employee photographs and oral history interviews with key Wedge personnel conducted in 1995 and 1996 by David Shayt, Division of Work and Industry, National Museum of American History. The interviews discuss the background of the participants, the company's origins and history, product development, the Silicon Valley context, and the efforts of Wedge Innovations successor firm, SmartTool Technologies.
The collection organized into seven series.
Series 1, Corporate Records, 1985-1993
Series 2, Engineering Records, 1985-1993
Series 3, Financial Records, 1985-1992
Series 4, Marketing Records, 1986-1992
Series 5, Operations Records, 1990-1993
Series 6, Product Development Records, 1986-1993
Series 7, Corporate Culture, 1985-1996
Biographical / Historical:
Andrew G. Butler (b. 1955), the founder of Wedge Innovations exhibited an interest in building construction and an entrepreneurial spirit early in life. From age 12 to 17 he built a boat that he then sailed alone from California to Tahiti, where he spent several years as an independent carpenter and building contractor. After returning to the United States, he earned a B.S. degree in electromechanical engineering from Stanford University (1983) and became a software specialist for Bechtel Construction. In 1985, he conceived of an idea for an electronic carpenter's level that could read a range of angles. Butler formed Wedge Innovations in 1986. He worked in the basement of his home in order to develop and market this level, selling his boat to finance the venture. He hired Marilyn Crowell as his secretary and Robert Nagle and Dan Kellogg as engineers. This company developed the sensor technology and software necessary to build the company's first product, the WedgeLevel. The heart of this tool was an electronic sensor circuit connected to a microprocessor capable of measuring the tool's orientation. This sensor module fit into an ergonomically-designed teak rail with anodized aluminum edges jointly developed by Butler, engineering design consultant Kevin Reeder, and engineer Ronald Wisnia.
In 1987, Wedge moved to Santa Clara to begin manufacturing the WedgeLevel. The transition from a research and development concern to a manufacturing company proved difficult, due to manufacturing and financial difficulties. It was difficult to obtain a reliable yet inexpensive source of teak for the rails, designs for a plastic composite and aluminum rail were developed, while offshore manufacturing of the sensor components was established. Overarching all concerns was the persistent difficulty of obtaining sufficient investment capital. While managing his growing company, Butler also began planning for a line of hand tools that combined microelectronics and user-oriented, ergonomic design. In 1988, the company changed the name of its product to SmartLevel in order to emphasize the company's proposed line of Smart Tools. That same year, the company adopted a new corporate logo, a stylized W with a red wedge, signaling its growing maturity. Promotion of the product also began through demonstrations of the prototype done by consultant building contractor, Rick Feffer.
In January 1989, the SmartLevel prototype was launched at the National Association of Home Builders Show in Atlanta, Georgia. The favorable publicity generated by this launch and by the company's media campaign generated many orders. To supply these orders, Wedge moved to larger quarters in Sunnyvale on April 1, 1989. In June 1989, Wedge gained further publicity by donating several SmartLevels to a Habitat for Humanity project in Milwaukee, where former president Jimmy Carter used one. Although Wedge expected to ship the first SmartLevels in July 1989, there were considerable delays in manufacturing. In particular, there were stability and performance problems with the sensor, which engineer Ken Gunderson was brought in to remedy. The sensor module was re-engineered to be more rugged and the level was redesigned with a plastic composite and aluminum rail. The new level, known as the Pro SmartLevel, was intended for the professional construction market. The first SmartLevels were shipped on September 5, 1989.
In 1990, patents were granted to Andrew Butler, Donald G. Green, and Robert E. Nagle for an inclinometer sensor circuit and to Butler and Ronald Wisnia for a carpenter's level design. That same year, Brian Bayley joined Wedge as Vice-president for Engineering, and Edwin "Win" Seipp joined as Project Manager - DIY SmartLevel. Seipp's responsibility was to develop a low-cost, "do-it-yourself" version of the SmartLevel, which was eventually called the Series 200 SmartLevel. This level had an all-aluminum rail and a non-removable sensor.
In September 1990, the company moved to San Jose and by 1991 had over 60 employees. Although sales continued to grow and name recognition of the product was quite strong, Wedge had difficulty meeting the expectations of its investors. Butler entered into financial negotiations with the Macklanburg-Duncan Corporation, a large-scale manufacturer of hand tools, to seek investment in his company. These negotiations led in November 1992 to the acquisition of Wedge by Macklanburg-Duncan, which dissolved all but Wedge's engineering section. Macklanburg-Duncan today manufactures a "SmartTool" level, while Butler co-owns D2M (Design To Market), a company that develops new product ideas for the market.
1992 -- Butler negotiates with Macklanburg-Duncan for a merger to save Wedge. In the midst of the negotiations, Butler is fired by his Board of Directors. Butler regains control of Wedge three months later, fires the replacement president, and sells Wedge outright to Macklanburg-Duncan, which dissolves all but the engineering functions of Wedge.
1991 -- Wedge sponsors a "New Product Development Conference," where numerous designs for new hand tools are worked on. SmartLevel sales and name recognition grows but not quickly enough to meet overhead expenses of new facility or investors' demands.
1990 -- Yet more redesign work, both in-house and with Kevin Reeder, who also develops idea for "SmartTube" carrying case (not built). Patents granted to Andy Butler et al. for inclinometer sensor circuit and carpenter's level design. Wedge hires Brian Bayley as vice-president for engineering to develop a low-cost model of the SmartLevel. The all-aluminum Series 200 SmartLevel is born. Wedge moves to larger facilities in San Jose.
1989 -- SmartLevel launched at National Association of Home Builders show in January. Good press coverage, but cannot meet orders. More publicity from Habitat for Humanity project when former President Jimmy Carter uses a SmartLevel. But stability and performance problems plague sensor. More redesign work results in more rugged Pro SmartLevel. The first SmartLevels shipped on September 5, 1989.
1987-1988 -- Wedge moves to Santa Clara; intends to begin manufacturing and todevelop an entire line of "Smart Tools" but encounters financial and engineering difficulties; Wedge consults with independent design engineer, Kevin Reeder, on level design. Intensive redesign effort develops the SmartLevel, made of plastic and aluminum rail.
1986 -- Wedge Innovations founded in the basement of Butler's house; basic sensor design worked out; teak & aluminum WedgeLevel developed.
1985 -- Idea for electronic carpenter's level formulated by Andy Butler.
Materials at the National Museum of American History
The Division of Work and Industry, National Museum of American History contains artifacts related to the SmartLevel Collection. These include five SmartLevels (Accession #1991.0823; 1996.0284; 1996.0285; 1996.0288; and 1996.0289). They are an original teak WedgeLevel, a Pro SmartLevel, a Series 200 SmartLevel, a Bosch version of the SmartLevel, and a Macklanburg-Duncan SmartTool level. There are also four sensor modules (torpedo levels), two sensors, two carrying cases, one cap, one tee shirt, and one wooden puzzle with the inscription "The World Isn't Just Level and Plumb."
The collection was donated by Andrew Butler, SmartLevel inventor and company founder, Brian Bayley, Vice-President for engineering at Wedge Innovations from 1989-1992, and Kevin Reeder, an independent industrial designer, 1995-1997.
The collection is open for research use.
Collection items available for reproduction, but the Archives Center makes no guarantees concerning intellectual property rights. Archives Center cost-recovery and use fees may apply when requesting reproductions.