Power tools are used by construction workers across the world. From nail guns to power saws, power tools have shaped the world around us. But where did the first power tool come from? Who created this billion dollar industry?
Ancient Egyptian Lathe
Technically speaking, the earliest machine tool comes from the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. While these cultures are known for their architectural wonders, very few people realize how advanced these cultures were.
While they didn’t have electric or batteries to power their tools, they are credited with the first machine tools.
The way the lathe worked was simple:
- One person turned the lathe.
- One person operated the lathe.
Ropes were used to turn the lathe, allowing it to cut shapes into wooden material. The lathe would be advanced over time. The Romans used a turning bow to power the tool, while hand operation was added in the Middle Ages.
Fast forward to 1772 when the UK had a horse-powered lathe.
And while all of these tools don’t have the power sources we rely on in today’s world, this doesn’t mean that they should be overlooked. The lathe is the first tool we have in history that is powered by someone or something other than the operator.
This sheds light on what was possible for tools, and it helped spur a revolution in power tools slowly over time.
1895 is a Year to Remember
The 1800s were some of the most important years in human evolution. While many inventions have changed the world, the 1800s was filled with bright minds and inventors that dreamed big and pushed technology forward.
Thomas Edison invented to incandescent electric lamp, spurring worldwide change.
But the lamp wasn’t just the birth of light as we know it. No, the lamp signified that other great inventions were possible, and it took just 16 years for civilization to go from its first lamp to its first power tool.
C & E Fein, a German company, was the first company to invent a power tool.
And what was the first power tool? A drill.
The company decided to combine a regular manual drill with an electric motor, and the electric drill was born. The drill wasn’t what we see in stores today, but it led to power tools as we know it.
The drill made by C & E was:
- Very large in size, weighing some 16.5 pounds. The weight made it difficult to drill for long periods of time, but it was a welcomed change from manual work.
- Slow in speed thanks to the weak DC motor the unit used. Electric was still fairly new, so it makes sense that the drill would be slow, albeit faster than a hand.
- So large that a person needed to operate the drill using two hands, much like a jack hammer today.
The unit lacked the power needed to drill without a person leaning into the drill via the included chest plate. Added weight pushed onto the plate allowed the user to drill into the material. But as evident from the facts above, it wasn’t the most practical design or concept.
In fact, it would seem almost unusable by today’s standards.
But this design lasted for a long time. It took 20 years before an updated version of the power drill came about. It’s a story that almost seems like a fairytale, but the birth of one of the biggest power tool companies in the world followed.
1910 Leads to Black & Decker
Black & Decker is a household name, but it had a humble beginning, much like every other company that grew into an empire. The story goes that in 1910, Duncan Black decided to sell his automobile for $600. This seems like a rather small amount, but when adjusted for inflation, this was almost $15,000 in today’s money.
Cars weren’t as widespread as they were today.
Black would use the funds to open a small machine shop in Baltimore along with Alonzo Decker. The early years of the shop were quiet ones, but in 1914, the two friends and business partners came up with an idea.
What was the idea?
Improve the C&E Fein power drill. This idea seemed like a long shot at the time, but it took just two years for their modified version to come to life. The plan was to adapt the Colt .45’s design and make a power tool out of it.
And this is where we get the pistol-grip tools that contractors still use today.
In fact, all drills found out in the market today owe their design to Black & Decker, who decided to incorporate a trigger-switch on the drill.
The great thing about the drill is that it was:
- Much lighter in weight, allowing its use to be far more practical.
- Much more powerful, allowing it to be operated by just one person.
The industry would flourish afterwards, with other power tool companies emerging and trying to use the design of Black & Decker and improve on it.
Soon enough, power tools spread from drills to other tools, leading to the wide array of equipment contractors use today.
People can still go and see the original portable drill at the National Museum of American History. Black & Decker’s original design needed time to take off, and the company did what made the most sense and marketed the tool to the industrial sector.
In 1921, the company decided that there was a retail market to fulfill with their tools, so they created a mobile classroom to teach distributors how to sell their drills.
Rotary hammers were introduced by Bosch in 1932, followed by a breaker hammer in 1950. The company would introduce its first cordless drill in 1978.
Power tools changed the way the world works by making building safer and more efficient. Black & Decker’s design would eventually lead to power tools being used by NASA and helping humanity get to the moon.