A History of Hand Tools

Tools are the key to understanding humanity. As a society develops, so too does it use of tools. We’re wholly dependent on them and use them from each moment to the next. Whether you’re popping in a nail, stitching a hole up, or just tightening a few bolts, thousands of years of human evolution has gone into what you’re holding.

It could be said that civilization started with tools, because until then we hadn’t done anything smart except open up some bananas (note: learn from monkeys, they open up bananas from the bottom, which it turns out is much easier). So, let’s get to it, and track the development of tools from the first to the space age.

1. The Oldowan

It should be noted that other animals use tools, but it is the human species that can make complex tools – a big difference. And although this is a debated subject, most experts agree the first tool was the Oldowan. Dated to about 2.6 million years ago, this primitive stone cutter was made by striking the rock at an angle to create a sharp edge. They were used for a bunch of stuff like cracking nuts, chopping wood, and slicing meat. Unfortunately for them, our ancestors didn’t see its use a shoe horn, but ah well, we live and learn.

 2. The Spear

This invention allowed our cousins homo heidelbergensis to perfect their tool making capabilities 500,000 years ago. The first were stone-tipped with a wooden shaft. This same species has been considered the first to bury its dead.

3. Bronze Razor

So around 8,000 years ago humans began to mould copper, but this metal was too soft and ineffective as a tool. Luckily, we discovered that copper alloyed with tin made bronze. This was a real game changer. Around the same time men got sick of their beards and started shaving too. Some of the earliest are found in Mesopotamia from about 3,000 years ago. They were sometimes came as part of a bathroom set including tweezers and ear-scoops.

4. Steel

With advancements in agriculture and metallurgy, and the alloying of carbon with iron to make steel, the tool industry really blew up. So from around 1,200 years ago we were able to start making tools that were about the same weight as bronze, but much, much stronger. From here on in, we started having a bit of fun.

 5. Circular Saw

Credited to a few different inventors around the late 18th century, this piece of hardware allowed for ease of cutting through wood. Its rotary system diverted the weight from the user and increased work flow loads fold. Some say that a one Tabitha Babbitt invented it, after witnessing two men using the cumbersome pit saw and noted that half their motion was wasted. She’s also considered the inventor of false teeth. Quite the C.V.

 6. The Spanner

Variations of spanner have been patented by many different people from the monkey wrench to the ratchet wrench. Jack Johnson, the first black world heavyweight boxing champion, patented his own version. Arrested for travelling with his white girlfriend across borders, which was prohibited under the Mann Act, Johnson diagrammed his wrench from prison, later patenting it on April 18, 1922.

 7. The Chain Saw

In 1926, Andreas Stihl invented the ‘Cutoff Chainsaw for Electric Power’, it weighed 63kg and had to be operated by two people. Three years later, he invented the first fuel powered chain saw, aptly called the ‘tree-felling machine’. Since then it’s been made iconic by certain horrors and the sound of its revving can send fear into the bravest of us. Whatever you say about it, it’s a seriously bad-ass machine.

 8. The Phillips Screw

First used on the assembly line for the 1936 Cadillac, these screws were a success and became, and still remain, the most popular screw in the world. Henry F. Phillips patented the idea with the intention of them being used by automatic drills, as they could withstand greater pressure, but they soon sprung up everywhere.

 9. Pistol-Grip Tool

Astronauts need a certain type of tool. They have to be able to withstand a fluctuation in temperatures from 150 degrees below Fahrenheit to 150 above. They also have to be able to work with fat chubby astronaut fingers, and can’t cause any cuts or tears because that would be bad news.  This thing is made from a special, glass-infused plastic called Lexan, which is then covered in aluminium and comes equipped with a very cool information screen. It can be seen in the academy award-winning motion picture ‘Gravity’.


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