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A Brief History of Power Tools

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Throughout most of human history our ability to build things was limited by the use of primitive tools and brute strength. But in 1895 that all changed with the invention of the first electric hand drill -- an invention that has dramatically changed how we build (and repair) the world around us.

Today, companies like Fein, Milwaukee, DeWalt, Makita, Bosch, Ridgid and Ryobi all serve the $33 billion global market for power tools. Every tradesman (or tradeswoman), whether they work in HVAC, plumbing, electrical, tree service, etc., use power tools every day.

caveman using tools

The First Power Tool

In 1895 the German engineering company C&E Fein combined the power of a manual drill with an electric motor to create the world's first power tool. The drill weighed in at a heavy 16.5 pounds, required two hands to operate, didn't turn very fast and was powered by a large, but weak, DC electric motor. This drill can still be seen today at the Deutsches Museum in Munich.

Fein's first power drill
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The Evolution of the Power Tool

Saturday Evening post ad for Black & Decker

Saturday Evening post ad for Black & Decker

In 1910, a tool and die worker by the name of Duncan Black sold his car for $600 and used the money to start a small machine shop in Baltimore, Maryland with his friend Alonzo Decker. In 1914, the two arrived at the same idea to improve the C&E Fein power drill by adapting the design of the Colt .45 automatic pistol. By 1916, Black & Decker had begun making their famous pistol-grip, trigger-switch electric drill, from which all modern handheld electric drills are descended.

The Black & Decker drill was not only lighter, but it used a more powerful motor and could be easily operated by one person, two critical features missing from C&E Fein's original electric drill. After that, the power tool industry was off and running and Black & Decker was soon followed by new companies with new kinds of power tools. A new era of human productivity was born.

NASA - Tools in Space

NASA is often incorrectly cited as the inventor of power tools. As we've already discussed, both Fein and Black & Decker should be credited with this.

However, in the mid-1960s, Martin Marietta Corporation contracted with Black & Decker to design tools for NASA. The tool company developed a zero-impact wrench for the Gemini project that spun bolts in zero gravity without spinning the astronaut.

Black & Decker also designed a cordless rotary hammer drill for the Apollo moon program. The drill was used to extract rock samples from the surface of the moon and could operate at extreme temperatures and in zero-atmosphere conditions. Before the zero-impact wrench and rotary hammer drill could go into space, they needed to be tested in anti-gravity conditions. Black & Decker and NASA tested the tools either under water or in transport planes that would climb to the highest possible altitude and then nosedive to simulate anti-gravity conditions.

astronaut with space tools

The pistol-grip tool slung on an astronaut’s spacesuit as he works on the Hubble space telescope.

"The largest difference between something we would use on the ground and what astronauts use in orbit is what the tools in space are exposed to. The tools are exposed to much hotter and colder temperatures, the vacuum of space, unique loads and radiation. They must be designed to be operated with large gloves."

Tamra George, NASA Hardware Manager