Hand Tools in History
Table of Contents
Chronology III: Iron and Steel Manufacturing: 1350 - 1865
- The Bessemer Process: The Third Industrial Revolution
- Tool Manufacturing Chronology
- Schema I: Edge Tool Production from Malleable Wrought Iron and Cast Steel (1775 - 1850)
- Schema II: Classification of Iron and Steel
Chronology IV: The Evolution of the Heat Engine Chronology V: Woodworking Tools in History Chronology VI: The Historic Period in Maine
As noted in our introduction to Chronologies I and II, our chronologies are "handy references useful to students, parents, teachers, or curators. Always of questionable accuracy to professional historians, schemas and chronologies are the result of our inevitable pedagogical efforts to make some sense of the confusing relationship between history and artifact." The following chronologies are intended to help in the documentation of the evolution of the manufacturing of hand tools from the stone age to the Industrial Revolution. "Adapt them to your needs; reinvent or redesign them, construct new ones, critique and correct them. Uncovering and understanding the actual sequence of historical events remains one of the most challenging jobs of archaeologists, historians, teachers and students. Perhaps the most important element of this understanding is realizing that absolutely correct sequences or historical chronologies are themselves myths which we invent to help us make sense of disorderly history."
For a review of iron- and steelmaking strategies and techniques before 1350 see Volume 6 of the Hand Tools in History museum publication series and its accompanying bibliography. Almost 4,000 years of ferrous metallurgy precede the first documented forge in North America. The irony of attempting to construct a pedagogical chronology of iron and steel manufacturing techniques is that numerous strategies for producing iron and steel tools were developed before 1300, many of which were used concurrently with more modern technologies all the way to the early years of the 20th century.
The first documented production of iron tools and implements in North America was by the Viking community at L'Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland circa 1025. The Natural History Museum in New York City includes in its display on the L'Anse aux Meadows site clear evidence of a Viking forge on the outer perimeter of the settlement. Nearby bogs supplied the iron ore for this forge, which would have been a primitive hearth type furnace.
Many early colonial farms and settlements included a primitive bog iron furnace. For early settlers, this could have ranged from a primitive earthen fire pit with a hole at the bottom to provide a natural draft to more a sophisticated hearth type furnace. No matter the design, the first iron production in North America was the direct process method where the blacksmith would pull the bloom, a pasty mass of iron, from the fire and begin the process of fashioning iron tools by repeatedly hammering out the impurities and reheating the iron until the desired product was created.
Local supplies of bog iron, however, were quickly depleted in the colonial days in many New England locations except for in southeastern Massachusetts and western Connecticut. The result was a codependency on imported bar iron stock from England, Sweden, Norway, and Russia or from more distant colonial sources outside of New England. Most bar stock was not, however, produced in primitive direct process furnaces but was the result of an Industrial Revolution that utilized larger blast furnaces to produce pig iron (cast iron), which was then reworked first in fineries and later in puddling furnaces into forged iron or was produced as wrought iron in America's numerous large open hearth furnaces and then often refined into bar stock. The two-stage wrought iron production process was necessary because the higher heat of the larger blast furnaces liquefied and carbonized the iron bloom, creating brittle and useless cast iron that had to be reprocessed into useable wrought iron bar stock. In the case of the larger open hearth furnaces, the many impurities in the wrought iron they produced also required further refining before quality forged iron or natural steel tools could be produced. The first commercial forge to utilize this two-step production of wrought iron from blast-furnace-derived pig iron in the United States was the Saugus Ironworks in Massachusetts in 1646. The first and only blast furnace in Maine was established near Katahdin in the mid-19th century. The blast furnace and the open hearth furnace appear to play a nearly equal role in iron production in America until the Civil War, as noted by Robert Gordon in his definitive survey of the history of iron production in America: American Iron, 1607 - 1900. Gordon provides a complete history of iron-making in America from its earliest beginnings in Virginia (1607) and Saugus (1648) to the rapid expansion of colonial iron-making in the Salisbury region of Connecticut, upstate New York, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere after 1710.
Cast steel made its first reappearance in 1742 in England. The production of cast steel and blister steel represents a third stage in iron production. After manufacture of cast pig iron in blast furnaces, pig iron was refined to remove both excess carbon and its many impurities. Henry Cort's improved puddling furnace (1784) produced a much higher quality wrought iron than was previously available via earlier refining processes. It was the availability of this higher quality, nearly pure wrought iron that enabled the widespread practical application of Benjamin Huntsman's crucible steel production process. Production of larger quantities of high quality wrought iron resulted in better quality blister steel, "sheaf" steel (refined blister steel), and crucible steel (cast steel) made from either blister steel or directly from pure puddled iron. The uniform quality of the cast steel produced in the crucibles in England was much superior to blister steel produced from pig iron refined into wrought iron and then made into steel by the tedious cementation process. After Huntsman's reintroduction of cast steel and the florescence of the Sheffield steel industries, imported cast steel tools became increasingly common in the tool kits of late colonial and early Republic artisans, and American blacksmiths were quick to use imported cast steel to produce high quality timber framers' and ship carpenters' edge tools.
It was not until the early 19th century that production of all cast steel tools in the United States was first undertaken. Fisher in The Epic of Steel suggests 1832 as the date of the first known American production of cast steel at Cincinnati, Ohio. Gordon, in American Iron, makes a persuasive case that widespread production of cast steel of the quality produced by English steel makers did not occur in the US until after 1860:
To make blister steel homogeneous and free of slag inclusions, artisans had to melt it in crucibles and cast the liquid into ingot molds. Benjamin Huntsman of Sheffield had started crucible steelmaking in 1742. The English steelmasters achieved their success with reliance on the skills of the experienced artisans concentrated near Sheffield, cautious innovation, and reliable supplies of Stourbridge clay and Swedish iron. American steelmakers found it hard to duplicate these special circumstances. They faced three difficulties in transferring the crucible steel process to the United States. First, they needed a source of iron free of sulfur and phosphorus to convert to blister steel, because the purity of the finished steel depended entirely on the purity of the iron from which it was made. Swedish charcoal-smelted finery iron worked best, and English steelmakers controlled the supply through long-term contracts. Second, the Americans needed crucibles that artisans using tongs could lift without breaking while full of liquid steel and that also satisfied the chemical requirements of the process. Sheffield steelmakers used an English Stourbridge clay for their crucibles, which Americans could not easily get. Third, the Americans needed experienced melters. Despite the apparent simplicity of the process, crucible steelmaking was an art not easily learned. Although the artisans in a new steelworks might acquire by practice the dexterity needed to pull and teem the crucibles, the judgment skills necessary for controlling the temperature and deoxidizing (killing) the steel were hard to learn for anyone who had not grown up in the trade in Sheffield. Americans began to have success with crucible steelmaking only after 1860. (Fisher 1963, 176-7)Because American steel had been previously inferior to English cast steel due to the reasons Gordon cites above, even when American production of cast steel was started by Henry Disston and other companies, they were reluctant to advertise their products as being made from American-made, rather than English-made, cast steel.
In America, blacksmith produced forged iron, natural, and weld steel hand tools were gradually superseded by factory-made cast iron implements and cast steel edge tools. In the florescence of American tool production, which began in the early 19th century, the steel in the hand tools, which Americans began marketing on a world wide basis, was still manufactured in England before being incorporated in American-made implements. The coming of the full-fledged Industrial Revolution in America was preceded by four decades of remarkable technological innovations and industrial expansion in New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and, eventually, in Ohio and other states. The rapid increase in American productivity with respect to its water mills and iron foundries masked its continued dependence on English steel. Once American foundries mastered the art of crucible steel production after 1865, the hegemony of the Sheffield steel industries was rapidly eroded.
The invention of the direct process of steel production on a large scale by Henry Bessemer marks the beginning of the third stage of the Industrial Revolution that forever altered, if gradually, the destiny of edge tool manufacturing in Europe and America. The two decades preceding the Civil War had been characterized by rapidly evolving technological change in America: adaptations of steam power in industry and transportation, expansion of mechanized textile production and the adaptation of mass production techniques using interchangeable parts for gun and machine manufacturing. Among the most important but least visible was the gradual evolution of sophisticated techniques for producing malleable cast iron using small quantities of alloys such as mixed grey cast iron containing graphite flakes, which increased strength and malleability. Use of silicon, manganese, and other alloys in combinations which still remain secret by companies such as the Chaney Plane Company and, later, the Griswold Company, resulted in an explosion of toolmaking strategies in American factories that ushered in the classic period of the Industrial Revolution in the United States. Many of the tools and cast iron ware produced in the period from 1850 to 1890 have never been surpassed in quality of durability in the 20th century. The invention of the direct steel manufacturing process by the Englishman Henry Bessemer represents a turning point in industrial production. Combined with mass production of interchangeable parts, this third stage of the Industrial Revolution obliterated the traditional role of artisans in many industrial activities. That this was not the case with the production of high quality edge tools is one of the forgotten footnotes of industrial history.
(Gordon 1996, 223).
The following quotation illustrates the speed and simplicity of the Bessemer process.
Bessemer patented this tilting converter for carrying out his pneumatic steelmaking process. He lined the vessel with refractory brick and. fitted ports at the bottom connected to an air compressor. Artisans tilted the converter back, poured in liquid pig iron, turned on the air blast, and tilted the vessel upright. Air blowing through the metal burned the silicon and carbon out of the pig and released enough heat to keep the metal molten. When conversion was complete, the operator tilted the vessel forward, shut off the air, and poured the liquid steel into ingot molds. (From Ferdinand Kohn, Iron and Steel Manufacture [London: William Mackenzie, 1869], pi. 25, facing p. 78). (Gordon 1996, 223)Not mentioned in any existing literature (Gordon, Goodman, Mercer, or others) is the startling fact the steel produced by the Bessemer process, no matter what alloys are added, is unsuitable for making high quality edge tools in comparison to those made from crucible steel. The advent of the Bessemer process adds an element of terminological confusion to the history of edge tool production. The Bessemer process also produced "cast steel" -- it was just a different animal from the cast steel produced from the crucible process. Essential ingredients needed for making high quality edge tools were "burned out" in the Bessemer process. Among the most important of these were silicon and magnesium, the latter of which R. A. Mushet convinced Henry Bessemer to add to his steelmaking process to restore its strength and usefulness. The advent of coal-fired iron production followed by the Bessemer process suggests an Industrial Revolution which, while advancing efficient mass production of iron and steel products of every description, worked against recent advances in edge tool production by eliminating (burning out) key trace elements such as silicon, which though obviously deleterious in large quantities, played an invisible essential role in the production of edge tools by individual blacksmiths and small foundries where mass production techniques counteracted with the intuitive knowledge and hands on centuries of empirical experience of individual artists (artisans).
I. Direct Processing of Iron Production: Prehistory to 1900
The production of steel in the early
years of the Industrial Revolution seems like a very complicated process. It's easy to understand Longfellow's romanticized blacksmith hammering
out a steel-edged implement on his anvil. Once the manufacturing
of steel-edged tools became a multiple step process, it is more difficult
to understand the difficulties encountered by edge toolmakers due to the
variable quality of the weld steel available to most blacksmiths. The following schema summarizes the essence of an Industrial Revolution
that began with a blast furnace and ended with sophisticated cast steel
edge tools and a variety of other malleable iron tools and artifacts. Until the late 19th century, edge tool production in the United States
was characterized by two different methods of production, the indirect
process from cast iron and the direct process from bloomeries.
The 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica is a landmark
in western literature in that it summarizes all the knowledge of late Victorian
and Edwardian England. Its classification, reprinted below, has
several additions by the editor. It is a very simple chart that clarifies
a very complicated subject for those who are not trained specialists in
the history of technology.
Puddled and bloomary, or Charcoal-hearth iron belong here.
Puddled and blister steel belong here.
|Slagless or "Ingot-Metal" Series.||
sometimes called "ingot-iron."
Nickel, manganese, tungsten, and chrome steels belong here.
Spiegeleisen, ferro-manganese, and silico-spiegel belong here.
In the study of Maine history, context is everything. The history of ancient Pemaquid cannot be told without a basic understanding of European attempts to discover a Northwest Passage to China or the robust market economy that characterized the milieu of the Elizabethan merchant adventurers. The history of Maine, including long forgotten backcountry mill towns, cannot be understood without reference to an Industrial Revolution that began outside of colonial America and developed in Europe and England with little visible impact on the coastal settlements of the ancient dominions of Maine. Perhaps the first signs of this Industrial Revolution were the appearance of cast steel edge tools in the tool kits of Maine's ship carpenters and factory made garments from the water mills of southern New England. The writings of Louis C. Hunter on the origins and growth of industrial power in the United States prompt the following effort to make some sense out of disorderly history, especially that most disorderly of all types of history, the history of technology. While England was suffering from a disastrous decimation of its forests beginning in the Elizabethan era and culminating in the early 18th century and iron production was greatly reduced due to a lack of fuel, colonial America, including Maine, had two great resources that postponed the dirtiest and most obvious aspects of the Industrial Revolution, its rivers and forests. Due to a lack of forest resources, England's manufacturing community quickly became reliant upon coal and then coke to fire its furnaces and newly invented steam engines. America was fortunate to have numerous large rivers in New England to power its watermill-driven factories, which soon equaled and surpassed in efficiency the steam-powered factories in the Midlands of England. In Maine, there was a 30 to 50 year delay before the watermills characteristic of southern New England made their appearance in Saco, Biddeford, Lewiston, and other locations. Maine's rivers were too rocky and too rapid, especially above their tidewaters, for the steam boats that opened the west prior to the proliferation of railroads. In Maine, it was the proliferation of railroads that brought factory-made tools and products of southern New England to the market towns of coastal Maine and gradually eroded the economic basis of the maritime culture of Maine and its two centuries of shipbuilding, codfishing, and coastal and West Indies trading.
A brief sketch of the evolution of the heat engine (see Hunter)
and the changes in transportation, hand tools, and representative tool kits
that characterized the Industrial Revolution, help us make some sense of
what has happened in Maine history.
|Era||Heat Engine /
|Prime Mover||Transportation Tools
(site specific for Maine)
|Characteristic Hand Tool(s)||Tool Kit Tool Types|
|Early Colonial (to 1720)||Wood / water||Animal power
|sailing vessel, ox||shipbuilders' tools: ax, adz, pit saw, pod auger||Wrought iron and smith-forged natural steel edge tools|
|Colonial (1720 - 1800)||Wood, charcoal / water||Animal power
small then larger water powered mills
|sailing vessel, ox, horse||shipbuilders' and carpenters' tools: as listed above, wooden hand plane||Smith forged natural and weld steel edge tools; first appearance of cast steel|
|Dawn of the Industrial Revolution (1800 - 1840)||Wood, charcoal / water||Water-powered factories and textile mills||sailing vessel, ox, horse, wagon||shipbuilders' tools, also compass, rule, level, marking gauge, mortising drills, trowel||Smith & small factory made weld and/or cast steel edge tools|
|Early Industrial Revolution I (1840 - 1865)||Water, coal||Water mills
|sailing vessel, horse, and first appearance of coastal steamers and trains||Same as above plus owner-made cast iron hand planes and machinists' calipers||Owner and small factory-made hand tools; weld and/or cast steel edge tools|
|Industrial Revolution II (1865 - 1900)||Coal, some oil||Steam engine||horse, bike, train, and steamboat; decline of sailing vessels||monkey wrench, die stocks, patternmakers' tools, malleable iron hand plane||Patternmaker tools, cast steel edge tools, and machine-milled steel machinery|
|Industrial Revolution III (1900 - 1960)||More oil, less coal||Internal combustion engine (ice)
Electric power grid
|train, automobile, airplane||tool and die makers' tools, mechanics' tools, engine rules, decline of woodworking hand tools||Milling machines, drop-forged machinists' and mechanics' tools|
|Industrial Revolution III (1960 - 2000)||Oil / Nuclear/ Natural gas||Ice, steam turbines, electric power grid||jet airplanes, automobiles, mass transit||photoengravers, decline of tool and diemaking, appearance of digital tools||Electric power tools, mass-produced hand tools|
|Post Industrial Revolution (2000 - 2010)||Oil / Nuclear/ Natural gas||Steam turbines
electric power grid
|jet airplanes, automobiles, mass transit||cell phones, computer mouse, computerized hand tools||Silicon computer chips|
|(2010 - ?)||Decline of oil/ Natural gas/ nuclear. New Alternative sources: gas, biomass, or solar||Steam turbines
electric power grid
|electric car? virtual travel?||wireless gadgets, digital cameras, electronic-biological machines?||Computers, Gene sequencers, Protein synthesizers|
In 1964, William L. Goodman, a self-taught carpenter and
teacher of woodworking skills in an English boy's school, published the
definitive study of woodworking tools in history, History of Woodworking
Tools. Subsequently, Goodman published the first edition of British
Planemakers in 1968. Both of these texts are among the most essential
references for anyone studying the history of tools and, especially, the
history of woodworking tools. Most of the woodworking tools in the
tool kits of the shipbuilders, millwrights, house builders, and coopers
of Maine's maritime culture utilized tools that followed English patterns
and designs. Goodman's History of Woodworking Tools, often cited
in various sections of the Davistown Museum website, contains the following
schema of when specific woodworking tools made their first appearance.
The schema that he constructed and printed in History of Woodworking
Tools is reproduced here because it describes the historical evolution
of the tool kits of both English carpenters and their colonial and American
Our chronologies and schemas -- our seemingly futile attempt to make some sense of disorderly history -- prompt one more pedagogical indulgence -- the sketching in of a timeline for Maine's historic evolution from a distinctive maritime culture using iron and steel woodworking tools to its submergence in the Industrial Revolution that at first bypassed much of coastal Maine. Twentieth century technology now dominates Maine's cultural existence -- yet what seems at first a cultural obliteration may allow -- via the compatibility of cybertechnology with Maine's craft traditions -- the florescence of a new Maine based upon its greatest assets: natural resources, an unbroken tradition of creative artisans and artists, an interesting history, and a stubborn unwillingness to be subsumed by the banal consumer culture of the late 20th century.
The following chronology is used as a guideline to organize and interpret the tools and artifacts on display in the Museum collection. The following time line traces an approximate technological chronology as it pertains to the settlement of coastal Maine. The history of Maine is different from the history of southern New England, Pennsylvania, or any other region in that there was a broad influx of population to the coast as a part of the great migration between 1630-1650. By 1670, thousands of residents lived in numerous towns and villages throughout the coastal areas of Maine, but King Philip's War (1676) marked the beginning of 80 years of intermittent warfare and resulted in a rapid end to what was the first colonial dominion in Maine. All settlements east of Wells were sacked, burned, or destroyed. Extensive resettlement in the colonial period didn't begin along coastal Maine until approximately 1714. Much of the interior of Maine and the coastal areas east of the Penobscot River remained disputed territory until the fall of Quebec in 1759. The Treaty of Paris (1763) marks a turning point in Maine history; vast tracts of land with rich forest resources suddenly opened to settlement by residents of resource-depleted southern New England. This unique history of coastal Maine dictates the outline of the following schema, which is designed to sketch the technological innovations that led to the Industrial Revolution and then to the rapid but invisible environmental changes that occurred in Maine in the late 20th century.
In constructing the following chronologies, we don't intend to suggest that there were no cast iron artifacts used or produced in Maine between 1500 - 1740. Rather, wrought iron implements dominated the tool kits of the early settlers until the late 18th century when the production of both cast steel edge tools and cast iron implements began appearing in the tool kits of the period. By the mid-19th century, cast iron was the metal of choice in the production of everything from pots to steam and railroad engines and machinery. During this period, cast steel edge tools began replacing forged iron and natural steel tools in the tool kits of Maine woodworkers. After invention of the Bessemer and modern open hearth processes, drop-forged steel tools and artifacts gradually replaced cast steel edge tools and cast iron implements. During and after the Civil War the tool kits of Maine's distinctive maritime culture were gradually replaced by the factory-made tools produced by the technological innovations of the Industrial Revolution. The Museum exhibition, "An Archaeology of Tools," illustrates the gradual change in the tool kits of Maine's artisans until the full fledged Industrial Revolution introduced technological changes that obliterated Maine's traditional maritime culture.
Terminology: Maritime Culture versus Industrial Revolution
A problem with terminology obviously occurs in our chronology: Maine's maritime cultures overlap with America's blossoming Industrial Revolution. As noted previously, the Industrial Revolution in Europe really begins with the blast furnaces and florescence of cathedral building in the 13th century. A second period of the Industrial Revolution begins with the rediscovery of cast steel, the development of the steam engine, and the introduction of the reverbatory furnace in England. Just as the golden age of shipbuilding in Maine is just beginning in the late 18th century, the proto-Industrial Revolution is already well underway both in America and, especially, in Europe.
Inovations in the design and construction of industrial
machinery following the example of the English Industrial Revolution occurred
in New England to the south of the Province of Maine. These include
the construction of the first cotton mill in Rhode Island (1790), the first
totally automated textile mills at Waltham, Massachusetts (1815), and the
rise of the factory system of producing guns and machinery with interchangeable
parts (1820 - 1850). Technological change in America occurred so
quickly in the years before the Civil War that any chronological
divisions are questionable. Yet it is incontestable that the golden
years of Maine's maritime culture are the 1840s and 1850s, years that coincide
with the period of rapid technological change in America, including the
florescence of small then larger edge tool and other manufacturing enterprises
in New England.
|Protohistoric Contact||1500 - 1607||forged iron tools (trade axes), copper pots, and other trade items|
|Maritime I: The First Colonial Dominion||1607 - 1676||forged iron and natural steel tools (ax, drawknife, adz, froe, homemade planes)|
|Maritime II: The Second Colonial Dominion & the Early Republic||1720 - 1800||forged iron and natural steel tools (ax, drawknife, adz, froe, homemade planes), first appearance of English cast steel edge tools, era of shipbuilding begins|
|Maritime III: Dawn of the Industrial Revolution||1800 - 1840||increased cast iron production, rise of small tool manufacturers, beginnings of the factory system, heyday of smaller schooners and coasting vessels|
|Maritime IV: Classic period of rapid industrial innovation||1840 - 1865||coal-fired steam engines for railroads, the age of cast iron, mass production of wool and cotton fabrics, the first appearance of factory-produced hand tools, florescence of shipbuilding|
|Industrial II: The classic period of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of mass production||1865 - 1900||Bessemer steel, Corliss steam engines replaced by steam turbines, steel barreled guns, era of "classic period of" manufactured hand tools, rise of the electrical power grid, bulk cargo schooners, textile and shoe factories|
|Industrial III: Transportation revolution||1900 - 1960||Age of electricity and internal combustion engines, motor vehicles, decline of reliance on and quality of hand tools, paper mills, heyday of fossil fuel era begins|
|Industrial IV: Communications revolution||1960 - 2000||nuclear and chemical tools, Cold War wastes and the military industrial complex, era of chemical fallout begins, paper mills, the Chernobyl accident marks the beginning of the decline of the Industrial Revolution|
|Post-Industrial electronic||2000 - 2010||electronic revolution, age of the internet, cyberspace, non-resource-based economies and rise of for-profit multi-national corporations|
|Post-technological||2010 - ?||genetic engineering, dominance of for-profit multi-national corporations selling genetically modified commodities, dramatic end to era of fossil fuel|