The History of Power Tools

by MOTORHEAD Tools Team on August 25, 2020

Power tools and even household tools in general, might seem like the most mundane everyday items.  

You use them when you need them, they’re sold everywhere and we treat them like they’ve existed in their current form since time immemorial. 

If we look back though, power tools as we use them today have only existed for a little over 100 years. 

In this article we’ll dig into the fun and fascinating history of power tools.  

From the ancient Egyptians to the modern power tool brands you’d recognize today; the history of power tools is a rich complex story. 

After reading this article, you’ll realize how much product development, design and incremental engineering went into all those power tools you know and love.  

Much of the built world in our everyday lives would impossible without them, including that weekend bathroom remodel! 

 

Not Just Electricity – Power Tools are Older Than You Think 

Egyptian Bow Drill: The First Known Power Tool 

Long before you ever built that deck on the back side of your home, the ancient Egyptians were paving the way for modern power tools.  

Long known for their engineering prowess and ability to build megalithic structures lasting the test of time – the Pyramids at Giza, the Sphinx and countless other monuments, it comes as no surprise the Ancient Egyptians were the forebears of all modern power tools.  

Though not powered by electricity, the Ancient Egyptians crafted what is believed to be the world’s first power tool – a bow powered lathe. 

The lathe was operated by two people. One would pull the bow to turn the lathe while the other operated it. Though powered by a person, the bow helped multiply force and get more done. 

Eventually horses were used to power lathes in the UK in the late 1700s, which would usher in the age of new power sources for tools. 

 

Water Power Tools: Stationary Power Tools 

At the beginning of the industrial revolution, new modes of power arose to power stationary before the advent of electricity. 

In 1810, the first water powered circular saw was developed in Massachusetts on Shaker community by Tabitha Babbit. The idea came to her after seeing backbreaking process of logs being cut by two men in a pit. A log would be positioned over the pit and the two people would cut the log above them with a two person saw. Each person would hold one end of the saw and collective push and pull it till it cut through the log. 

Babbit wanted to alleviate the backbreaking nature of this process and thus created the stationary circular saw power by water. This allowed much larger and more efficient cuts, starting a chain of industrial developments that would harness the power of different forces – water, air, steam, electricity and more. 

 

Electrification – A Whole New World of Tools 

C & E Fein Builds First Electric Power Tool 

In 1895, the Germany Company C & E Fein developed the first power tool powered by electricity. 

This isn’t the type of drill you’re probably picturing in your mind. The drill was essentially a hand drill with a corded AC electric motor attached to it. It’s crude by today’s standards and was difficult to operate, but it lead to a chain of rapid electric tool developments that spanned into the 20th century. 

 

Birth of Modern Style Handheld Electric Power Tools 

Due to the cumbersome nature of early electric drills, two men in America set out to develop a more user friendly drill that could be easily operated by one person.  

In 1914, Duncan Black and Alonzo Decker setup a machine shop in Baltimore, Maryland and developed the modern handheld corded electric power drill. The two saw the ergonomic design of the Colt .45 pistol and decided to base their drill design off its physical layout. 

For the bulk of the 20th century, new handheld corded power tools were developed that resemble the tools we know today- the circular saw, reciprocating saw, hammer drill, angle grinder and more. All remained corded AC devices requiring hook ups to household and industrial electrical outlets. In 1961, the first battery-powered cordless electric power tools were developed in the United States. 

 

Plastics: Safer Power Tools 

Up until the late 1950s, all corded electric power tools were mostly made of metal. While metal is durable, it can be dangerous if the tool suffers an electrical malfunction (say if the tool shorts and thus shocks the user). Metal is also heavy and increases fatigue when using the tool. 

With the proliferation of plastics in the mid-20th century, they were soon adapted to use in power tools. 

In 1957, BOSCH created the first hammer drill with a body made from high-durability fiberglass re-enforced plastic.  

The rest of the industry followed and soon after all power tools would feature some sort of plastic construction. 

 

The Space Race – To the Moon and Beyond 

Cutting the Cord: Black & Decker Create First Cordless Power Tool 

Only 66 years after the creation of the first electric power tool, the first cordless battery powered electric drill was created by Black & Decker in 1961. 

The drill was powered by Nickel-Cadmium batteries and was aimed more at home users, given that the power and recharge times weren’t yet optimal for heavy industrial use. 

 

NASA, Power Tools & Project Gemini 

In space, there are no electrical outlets. Any tools used to repair space craft needed to be self-contained. When floating in space, cords could become tangled around the user, making them a hazard.  

It was in 1965 that NASA ordered the creation of the first high-profile cordless power tool – a cordless battery operated impact wrench used by astronauts while on space walks. It was used to perform exterior maintenance on the Gemini spacecraft while in zero gravity.  

When it became time to head to the moon, NASA commissioned the creation of a purpose built cordless hammer drill to extract rock samples from the surface from the moon. Later they were even used cordless power tools to construct the International Space Station. 

 

Lithium-Ion: More Power, More Utility & More Applications 

Up until the early 2000s, cordless power tools were mainly powered by Nickel-Cadmium batteries. While Nickel-Cadmium worked, the power density and performance in no way rivaled corded AC power tools. For larger jobs corded power tools were always needed. 

This all changed in 2005 when Lithium-Ion battery technology matured.  

Lithium-Ion had several advantages over Nickel-Cadmium – most notably greater power density and more total recharge cycles.  

With these two benefits Lithium-Ion power tools could rival the power, durability and application of corded electric power tools all the way from high-power rotary hammer drills down to light-duty drills. 

Milwaukee became the first company to integrate Lithium-Ion into its lineup and soon the rest of the industry followed. 

Lithium-Ion has also fostered an incredible amount of tools/work devices never before though of being battery powered – air compressors, stationary saws, crimping tools, transfer pumps and even coffee makers. 

 

We are Standing on the Shoulders of Giants 

Just think – if we hadn’t gone to the moon, you’d might lack the convenience and ability to complete even the most must mundane of power tool jobs, like hanging a picture!  

Under their now conventional appearance, modern power tools are truly revolutionary - they’ve gone from playing a fundamental role in helping ancient Egyptians build their civilization to taking humanity to the moon.  

Power tools, often so easily taken for granted, aren’t just a mundane appliance. Without them modern life and the built world around us would be impossible.  

When you cook in your kitchen, use your bathroom or just relax on your deck, never forget every one of these rooms would be impossible to enjoy withou