Today, let's saw wood. 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.
A TV program about logging has set me to thinking about
continuous saws -- about the odd conceptual leap from back-and-forth sawing to
saws that continuously cut in the same direction -- circular saws, band saws,
Let's abstract the problem of sawing. Let's look for the underlying obstacle.
Sawing calls to mind the invention of the wheel:
To move forward continuously,
humans and animals make oscillatory motions -- walking, running, crawling.
Only about 5300 years ago, someone in the Near East realized that a wheel on
an axle would allow continuous forward motion, without jerky to-and-fro action.
So too with sawing: The first breakthrough was also a wheel on an axle. It was
the circular saw. Around 1810, a Shaker woman, Tabitha Babbit, watched her
brothers laboriously sawing wood. She realized that a wheel could accomplish
that task, so she attached a notched metal disc to her spinning wheel to
demonstrate her idea.
And her idea took hold in our heavily wooded continent. Several isolated
circular saws had already been made in England and Holland. But here,
the circular saw flourished.
However, circular saws were limited by the radius of the disc when they had to
make a continuous cut, the length of a log. The band saw would have to
be the answer to that problem.
In 1808, even before Sister Tabitha, William Newberry patented a band saw in
England. But there was a catch. A continuous metal band had to be held
together at some point. It had to withstand high tensile stresses.
Newberry's idea was not yet workable.
Not 'til 1846 did another woman, a Mademoiselle Crepin in France, patent means
for brazing the ends together. By the late 19th century, band saws were in
common use, and their inherently thin kerf began greatly
reducing waste in sawmills.
Like the band saw, the chainsaw was invented early and developed late. A German
orthopedist built a small one in 1830 to cut bone. But here again, we need to
consider the concept: A chainsaw offers little advantage over a band saw unless
we want our saw to be portable. And then, it must be powered. Chainsaws couldn't
come into their own until we had small gasoline engines.
Swiss developer Andreas Stihl perfected the idea in the late 1920s. Even then,
the chainsaw wasn't miniaturized into a hand tool until 1950. Now a chain rides
the rim of a rigid plate. Each link carries a tooth, with the teeth alternating
left-right. Its kerf is large -- that is, it cuts a very wide slit. Chain saws
can be used to take down trees, but they're too wasteful to cut lumber.
America was built on wood and we live by wood, even today. It once took so much
backbreaking labor to harvest and use what has now become another agricultural product.
All that labor was finally eliminated when we managed to think in the abstract --
to take an obviously oscillatory motion, and make it continuous.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
For more on circular saws, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circular_saw
For more on Sister Tabitha and Mme Crepin, see:
Or this Women's Studies page
M. Duqinske, Band Saw Handbook.
Below: Top, Three modern circular saw blades. Bottom, a modern Stihl chainsaw. (All photos by JHL)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.