Today, some ideas about us and our tools. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
So much is written about
fine furniture and cabinet-making. But we hear very
little about the tools that made Chippendale chairs
or early American desks.
Historian Peter Welsh tries to remedy that. He
leads us through the Smithsonian collection of hand
wood-working tools --from the 17th century up into
the early 20th century. It spans a little more than
a century on either side of the Industrial
Revolution. And it suggests that tools mirror the
world we live in.
Most wood-working tools rode through this period
without changing their basic character.
17th-century planes, saws, clamps, and chisels
didn't look the same, but it's easy to recognize
them for what they are. Only one fundamentally new
tool arose in that period, and it's a surprise.
It's the gimlet auger, of all things -- something
you hardly see anymore.
Two things had changed by the 19th century. One was
the quality and extent of metalwork. We find all
sorts of fine screw fittings and adjustments that
weren't there 200 years earlier.
But most of all, hand-tools start reflecting a new
style. It's almost as though the fine lines of the
furniture they're used to make have rubbed off on
them. The sinuous shape of today's axe handle --
the way the end curves to give the user a better
hold -- that came in during the 19th century. So
did the comfortable pistol grip you expect to see
on a carpenter's saw. These changes began in the
18th century when people began to see tools as
Perhaps the breath of 18th-century science was
blowing into the cabinet-maker's shop. During these
years a profusion of stylish new precision
measuring instruments arose to support hand-tools
-- fancy calipers and dividers. But the tools
themselves also began to look like scientific
instruments. Here's a hundred-year-old drill brace.
It's made of heavy brass with clutches and ratchets
and shiny japanned handles. Do you remember your
grandfather's wood plane -- the brass and
tool-steel -- the array of adjustment knobs -- the
beautifully formed wooden handles?
We still do woodwork. We still seek the essential
pleasure of shaping wood with our own hands. But
now we use power tools. Tools are intimate
possessions. They reflect the way we see ourselves.
I may be nostalgic for turn-of-the-century tools --
for that lost harmony of wood, brass, steel, and
form. But when the chips are down, I'm a creature
of this world. When I want to make a hole, I reach
for a power drill.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds