There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Ninety Seven

Walter Hunt (1796 – 1859)

If you stop and think about it, and few of us do, the safety pin is a piece of design perfection. It is a pin with a spring mechanism and a clasp which fastens the pin to whatever it is to be attached to and prevents the user from pricking their finger. The design is so simple and effective that it is hard to envisage how it can be improved upon. It has stood the test of time and has barely changed since the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Walter Hunt, came up with the idea.

The story goes that fretting over a $15 debt, Walter was fiddling with a bit of wire. In a flash, the idea of a covered pin came to him and within a few hours, had completed his design. Although he patented the design, he sold it on for somewhere between $100 and $400, a fraction of what he could have earned from it.

And that in a nutshell is the story of Hunt’s career; he was a serial inventor but was so strapped for cash that he sold the patents on often for a modest sum, swapping uncertain future income for the certainty of immediate cash. By the early nineteenth century a vibrant secondary market for patents had emerged where companies or individuals would buy the exclusive rights to inventions. Hunt sold the rights of most of his inventions this way.

Born in Martinsburg, in upper New York state, Walter Hunt trained as a stonemason but ended up working in a local flax mill. He had an inquisitive mind and an inventive streak, he went on to become a serial inventor, and began to potter around to see if he could develop a more efficient form of flax spinner.

Naturally, Walter could and sufficiently encouraged by his model, he applied for and was granted a patent in 1826. Recognising that his machine was a game changer, he wanted to build a business around his invention, but there was one problem. He didn’t have the financial resources to bring his plans to fruition. The solution was to treat his patent as a commodity and sell it to the highest bidder. This became Walter’s modus operandi throughout his career.

And a prolific career it was too.

Among his many inventions, the list is too exhaustive for this vignette, were a coach alarm system, which allowed a coachman to warn pedestrians of oncoming horses, a nail-making machine, a ship which broke up ice, a knife sharpener, a rope-making machine, and a street sweeper. Where they were patented, Walter soon sold them on.

Another of Walter’s brainwaves was to develop a repeating rifle and cartridge system, the design of which would be used by Smith and Wesson. Naturally, Walter saw little financial reward for this innovation.

Some of Walter’s inventions were off the wall, or not, in the case of what was known as an “antipodean apparatus”. Despite its odd name, it was a pair of shoes, which allowed the wearer to walk up walls and ceilings. It went down a storm amongst circus performers. It continued to sell and be used until well into the 1930s, but despite its apparent success, Hunt was on his uppers.

In what must be an early example of inventor’s remorse, wishing that he could put the genie he had released back into the bottle, Walter made a significant breakthrough in the development of the sewing machine. In 1833, he came up with what was the first workable sewing machine. He was concerned that if the machine took off it would damage the employment prospects of seamstresses and so, true to form, sold the rights to a businessman.

The businessman struggled to manufacture the machine commercially and gave up, crucially omitting to patent the design. That seemed to be the end of the story until, in 1846, Elias Howe was awarded a patent for his sewing machine.

Howe was disputatious and launched a series of lawsuits against other sewing machine manufacturers to protect and assert his patent rights. This alerted Walter to the fact that Howe’s design was not dissimilar to the one he developed thirteen years earlier. After a legal battle, Hunt was recognised as the inventor, but the absence of a patent meant that Howe got to keep the intellectual property rights to the machine.

Now enter Isaac Singer.

His iconic sewing machine, the prototype of the machine we know today, incorporated elements from Hunt’s and Howe’s design. Howe took Singer to court for Patent Infringement. In his defence, Singer claimed that Howe had ripped off Hunt’s design. The absence of a patent on Hunt’s machine counted against Singer, who had to pay Howe substantial damages.

As a by-product of this case, Singer eventually agreed, in 1858, to pay Walter $50,000 for incorporating elements of his design in his machine but then fate intervened. Walter died of pneumonia in 1859, before he had received a cent from Singer.

That, I suppose, is the lot of the inventor and why, Walter, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, why not check out Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone


There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Ninety Six

Thomas Paine (1737 – 1809)

From the age of around ten, until I went to university, I lived in the beautiful rural county of Shropshire. One of its principal claims to fame is that it is home to the world’s first major bridge to be constructed entirely of cast iron, spanning the Severn Gorge at Coalbrookdale.

Abraham Darby’s iconic design was a testament to the burgeoning age of industrialisation and word of the bridge, opened in 1779, spread around the world. Its fame gave its rather prosaic name to the small town that grew up around it, Ironbridge.

Revolutionary as the material used to build the bridge was, Darby’s iron construction was traditional in design, consisting of five ribs, forming a semicircle, a technique dating back to at least the Roman times. The drawback with a semicircle was that the width dictated the height of the bridge, fine for a steep gorge like the one at Coalbrookdale but creating an irritating hump on wider spans.

The Romans, ingenious to the last, solved this problem by using a sequence of small arches. But this approach caused other problems, not least that there was more work required to secure the footings which, in turn, could alter the flow of the river, as the nineteen arches on London Bridge had done to the Thames.

Now that there was a revolutionary new material with which to construct a bridge, wouldn’t it be great if the design was freed from the restrictions imposed by the traditional semicircle methodology?

This is where Thomas Paine sought to make his mark.

One of America’s founding fathers, Thomas is best known these days as the author of The Rights of Man, published in 1791 and a forthright defence of the French Revolution against the attacks of British politicians such as Edward Burke. But he had other strings to his bow, not least being an ardent pontist, fascinated by the mix of architectural splendour and sheer practicality that makes up a bridge.

Aren’t we all?

Intrigued by iron bridges, Paine sought to raise enough money to build a bridge that would span the river Harlem in New York in 1785 and another to cross the Seine in Paris in 1786. His lack of experience in bridge building counted against him, as did his revolutionary design for the span.

Thwarted by practicalities, he turned his attention to perfecting his design.

Claiming to draw his inspiration from a spider’s web, Paine sought to liberate bridge design from the restrictions imposed by a semicircle. He concentrated his attention on what geometricians call the “chord of a circle”, which, simply put, is a straight line between two points on a circle. Using a chord meant that the height of the arch could be adjusted to the demands of the topology of the area to be spanned.

Goodbye, hump-backed bridges.

Convinced that he had cracked the problem, Paine applied for a patent on his idea, the application being granted on August 26, 1788 (patent No. 1667), specifically for a bridge, using his design, to span the river Don in Sheffield.

Despite having the patent to hand, the project was still born.

Desperate to raise some public interest in his design, Paine turned his attention to creating a 110 foot-long iron bridge, effectively a bridge to nowhere, on the bowling green of a public house, the London Stingo, in Lisson Green, on the edge of London’s Paddington.

Quite what the bowling fraternity thought of his erection is unrecorded.

Paine had interested Thomas Jefferson in the project. The Sage of Monticello was enthusiastic, convinced that Paine would build an arch of up to five hundred feet and that any bridge so constructed would soon cover its building costs in toll fees generated.

Work was started in May 1790 and completed in the September, eliciting a congratulatory note from Jefferson, “I congratulate you sincerely on the success of your bridge. I was sure of it before from theory: yet one likes to be assured from practice also.”

But fine words butter no parsnips.

No money was forthcoming to enable Paine to build a bridge to his new design across a river and, by October 1791, the structure was rusting. Disheartened, Paine suffered the ignominy of seeing his bridge dismantled and packed off to Yorkshire, some of the iron then being used to build a bridge spanning the River Wear in Sunderland in 1796, at 240 feet then the longest iron bridge in the world.

At least, the bowlers of the London Stingo got their green back.

By then, Paine had weightier matters on his mind. The Pitt administration, fearing a revolution at home, started to crackdown on agitators and dangerous sorts. With a warrant out for his arrest, Paine skipped across the Channel to France in September 1792.

It is a pity that there was no bridge to facilitate his escape.

If you enjoyed this, check out Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone


There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Ninety Five

Angela Ruiz Robles (1895 – 1975)

Books do furnish a room.

You can tell a lot about a person by the presence or absence of books in their house. When I encounter a bookshelf, I feel drawn towards it, as if I am answering the siren call. There is something magical about the physical properties of a book, the feel, its weight, the cover, the spine, its illustrations, the layout of the text, even the type selected.

Beautiful as they undoubtedly are, they are heavy and take up a lot of room.

I’m a voracious reader and get through books by the dozen. I have a few favourites, which I return to from time-to-time, but most of my reading matter is engorged once and once only. And one of my personal nightmares is being away from home, travelling or on holiday, and running out of reading material.

To me and, I’m sure, many others, the e-reader is a Godsend, allowing me to have almost instantaneous access to hundreds of books in a portable rectangular device. Aesthetically pleasing it is not and unlikely to revolutionise the way books are delivered as the format’s early evangelists once claimed, but it is convenient and, for bookworms like me, an invaluable support prop.

The concept of an automated reading device dates back to the 1940s, the brainchild of the director of the Instituto Ibanez Martin in Ferrol in Spain, Angela Ruiz Robles. Her vision was to make teaching easier and to enable her students to maximise their knowledge with the minimum of effort.

Fundamental to achieving this aim would be the development of a mechanical book, which contained all the texts that a student would need. Instead of volumes of battered text books, all their satchels would contain would be a light-weight, portable, easy-to-use mechanical reader.

Angela worked away on her idea and by 1949 had come up with a pastel-green coloured metal box which she called, snappily, I feel, Procedimiento mecánico, eléctrico y a presión de aire para lectura de libros or, in English translation, “a mechanical, electrical and air pressure procedure for reading books”.

Inside were a series of tapes on interchangeable spools, some containing text and others illustrations, all protected by a transparent and unbreakable sheet. It came with a magnifying lens and a light so that it could be used in the dark. The mechanical encyclopedia even had an audio component, which brought the text to life.

Angela had considered a wider application for her book than just Spain, proposing alphabets and texts in a number of languages. Content could be read from start to finish or the reader could skip to a new chapter by pressing a button. She even envisaged an interactive index and a list of installed works, which the student could move between by pressing one or more buttons.

To entice the publishers, Angela proposed a standard size for cartridges and, of course, some of the production costs associated with book production, such as pasting and binding, would be eliminated.

What was there not to like?

Satisfied with her prototype, Angela applied for a patent. On December 7, 1949 she was awarded Spanish patent 190,698 for what was described as a mechanical encyclopedia. She paid the annual renewal fee up until 1961 but was unable to attract sufficient funding or interest from publishers to make her vision of an alternative to a book a commercial reality.

Undaunted, on April 10, 1962, Angela applied for and received a patent (No 276,346) for an “apparatus for diverse readings and exercises”. Although it contained many of the components of the original mechanical encyclopedia, it had a slightly more streamlined design. Be that as it may, it still met the same fate as Angela’s original machine. No manufacturers or publishers would back it with cash to bring it into production.

And, so, the idea of a mechanised book or reader as we would now call it withered and died, only to be picked up again by Michael Hart in 1971 with the prototype of a truly electronic reader.

Belatedly, Angela’s contribution to the development of e-reader has begun to be recognised but she missed out on the commercial gains of her brainwave. A version of her early prototype, a splendid affair made from bronze, wood, zinc, and paper can be seen to this day at the Science and Technology Museum of La Coruna.

If you enjoyed this, check out Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Ninety Four

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857 – 1935)

I’m fairly Catholic in my reading but there is one genre that I can’t really get on with, science fiction. Perhaps it is my lack of imagination or just that I would prefer to spend my time understanding the range of emotions that make we humans tick or how we react to situations, comic or tragic.

I’m sure it is my loss.

But there are some whose imagination is stimulated by sci-fi and one such was Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.

The fifth child out of eighteen born to an impoverished Polish immigrant family in Russia, (cause and effect, I can’t help thinking), profoundly deaf after a childhood bout of scarlet fever and pretty much self-taught, Konstantin stumbled upon Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, first published in 1865.

Fascinated by the prospect of travel to the Earth’s nearest neighbour but being of a practical bent, he calculated that using a giant cannon to fire a spacecraft to the moon, Verne’s designated method, would generate forces that would kill the unfortunate passengers.

Verne did, though, light the blue touch paper that ignited Konstantin’s life-long interest in all matters aeronautical. He is reported to have remarked, “I do not remember how it got into my head to make the first calculations relating to the rocket. It seems to me the first seeds were planted by the famous fantasoeur, J Verne”.

Initially, he set his sights on flight, designing early airships and Russia’s first wind tunnel. He published his first work on the subject in 1892. In 1894, he wrote an article in which he proposed an aircraft made of metal. Surely the idea would never take off.

But the lure of space travel proved too great.

Konstantin tried his hand at writing science fiction but found that his mind wandered to trying to solve the practicalities of getting a rocket out of the Earth’s atmosphere and on its way to the moon. From 1895, this became his major preoccupation.

By 1903, Konstantin had cracked the problem, writing Explorations of the World Space with Reaction Machines, which was published in Russia’s scientific review, Nauchnoe Obozrenie. More articles were forthcoming from the prolific scientist. His rockets were to be fuelled by a mix of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, precisely the same mix as was to be used by the Space Shuttle.

Astonishingly, hydrogen had only been liquefied for the first time by James Dewar in 1898.

Konstantin developed what later became to be known as the Tsiolkovsky Equation, which demonstrated the mathematical relationship between the change in the mass of a rocket as it burnt fuel, the speed of its exhaust gases, and the final velocity of the rocket. It became the bedrock that enabled the later development of astronautics.

Konstantin wasn’t done.

In 1929, he published an article in which he postulated that in order for a rocket to break out of orbit, it would need a series of rockets to drive it forward, each one breaking off from the main body of the craft as it had used up all of its fuel.

Who needed science fiction when you had Tsiolkovsky?

But hardly anyone outside of Russia had heard of his work. The Bolshevik revolution meant that very little hard information was coming out of the country. In any event, Konstantin was a lowly school teacher, who spent his spare time thinking about rocketry rather than a fully-fledged scientist attached to an acknowledged academic institution of standing. Moreover, the scientific journal he used to publish his articles was closed down.

There was no world-wide web to publicise his findings.

So, independently and in parallel during the 1920s, the German Hermann Oberthand and the American physicist, Robert Goddard, worked on many of the problems that had exercised Konstantin’s mind and often came up with the same conclusions as he had. All three could claim to be the fathers of rocketry, although Konstantin seemed to have got there first.

Full recognition of his genius only came posthumously. His work was drawn on and influenced the rocket designers, Valentin Glushko and Sergey Korolyov, as Russia strove to win the space race in the 1950s and early 1960s. The most prominent crater on the dark side of the moon bears Konstantin’s name as does asteroid 1590.

Tsiolkovsky was a great visionary. He wrote that “mankind will not forever remain on Earth, but in the pursuit of light and space will first timidly emerge from the bounds of the atmosphere, and then advance until he has conquered the whole of circumsolar space”.”

He was not wrong.

If you enjoyed this, check out Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Ninety Three

Charles Lindbergh (1902 – 1974)

By any stretch of the imagination Charles Lindbergh was a complex character.

He is best known for his solo, non-stop, trans-Atlantic flight in 1927 from Long Island to Paris in a single-engine plane called Spirit of America. Tragedy befell him in 1932 when his son, Charles Junior, was kidnapped and subsequently murdered in what was described by H L Mencken as “the biggest story since the Resurrection.

Returning from self-imposed exile in Europe in 1935 to the States in 1939 and until the Pearl Harbour attack took a prominent anti-interventionist stance, attracting a public rebuke from President Roosevelt and allegations of fascist sympathies. Once he engaged with the war effort he put his undoubted aviatic acumen to good use, flying over fifty combat missions during the war against Japan in the Pacific region. For the rest of his life he was dogged by allegations of being a eugenist and a philanderer.

But the reason why Lindbergh is nominated for our illustrious Hall of Fame is for his now little-remembered involvement in the development of heart surgery and, in particular, the perfusion pump.

Our story begins in 1930 when Lindbergh’s sister-in-law developed a heart condition which proved to be fatal. It set him wondering why it was not possible to repair defects in the body’s major organ surgically. He was introduced to the Nobel Prize winning surgeon, Alexis Carrell, who was working on methods to keep organs alive outside of the body. In fact, Carrell had developed a nutrient-rich fluid that did the trick but lacked the technological know-how to ensure that the organ was continuously exposed to oxygenated blood, a process known as perfusion.

This is where Lindbergh came in.

By May 1931 he had advanced sufficiently to publish in one of the shortest ever articles to appear in the journal, Science, details of a device which circulated fluid constantly through a closed system. It created little attention.

By 1935 Lindbergh had come up with a solution to Carrell’s problem, a glass pump, consisting of three chambers or, to use his own words, “an apparatus, which maintains, under controllable conditions, a pulsating circulation of sterile fluid through organs for a length of time limited only by the changes in the organs and in the perfusion fluid.

The use of glass was critical and Lindbergh used a form of pyrex, as other materials were found to cause blood clots and other complications. The heart was placed in a slanting tube and the carotid artery was connected to a second, small glass tube. Air pressure would force Carrell’s nutritious fluid from a lower chamber through the tube and artery to the heart, gravity then taking over and forcing it back down to the lower chamber. There were no moving parts.

There was one problem; the absence of a filter, an ersatz kidney, meant that the organ’s secretion mixed with the fluid from the perfusion pump, requiring it to be changed frequently. Nonetheless, the duo carried out a public demonstration of their pump on 5th April 1935, perfusing a cat’s thyroid gland which, after eighteen days, was still healthy and, more importantly, alive and replicating.

The public response to this breakthrough was phenomenal. It was described as “the fountain of old age” and some speculated that Lindbergh’s contribution would earn him more fame than his aeronautical achievements. They even graced the cover of Time magazine in July 1935. The press hysteria forced him to flee to Europe.

Over the next four years nearly a thousand trials of the pump were carried out and it never malfunctioned, although the absence of a filter continued to pose the threat of contamination. It was a star exhibit of the World Fair in New York in 1939.

But only around twenty of the pumps were ever produced. What went wrong?

It was tricky to use and attaching the artery to the glass tube was difficult. It was too easy to tear or damage the artery, making the organ to which it was attached unusable. By 1940 it was abandoned.

But it became the forerunner of surgical devices such as the heart-lung machine and gave surgeons a methodology to work on to stop the heart during an operation.

But Lindbergh is best known these days for other things.

If you enjoyed this, why not check out Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Ninety Two

Charles Francis Jenkins (1867 – 1934)

Whether we like it or not, popular entertainment was transformed in the early 20th century by the development of television and cinematography. Someone who could justifiably claim to be at the birth of both media is the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Charles Francis Jenkins. Much good it did him.

Born to a Quaker family who moved, when Jenkins was just two, to farm in Fountain City, Indiana, as a boy he was forever tinkering with machinery and soon proved to be a dab hand at fixing broken down implements. He also showed an inventive streak, developing a jack to lift wagons so their axles could be greased.

Like many a youth, Jenkins could not resist the lure of the city and at the age of nineteen moved to Washington DC, working as a stenographer in the early incarnation of the US Coast Guard. Although he had left his country roots behind, Charles could not shake off his inquisitiveness.

By 1890 Jenkins began working on what he described as a “motion picture projecting box” and called a Phantoscope. By the spring of 1894 he was sufficiently satisfied with his progress that he wrote to his parents that he was coming back to Indiana to show them his latest invention, instructing them to assemble a crowd of relatives and interested bystanders at his cousin’s jewellery store in Richmond on 6th June.

The gadget was packed up and sent to Richmond, Jenkins following on, completing the 700-mile journey by bicycle.

After some technical issues, according to the Richmond Telegraph, “there began a sputtering sound as the machine kicked into life and out of the lens shot light onto the wall and a girl clad in garments more picturesque than protective stepped lively. She did not seem bashful thus displayed, while those in the audience were taken aback.” The shameful hussy was Annabelle, a vaudeville favourite.

The audience, after recovering from the assault on their sensibilities, went behind the screen to check that there had been no sleight of hand. Not only was this the earliest documented performance of moving pictures to an audience but, astonishingly, it was in colour as each frame had been stained or coloured by hand. Moreover, it used reeled film and an electric light to project the images.

In the winter of 1894 Jenkins was introduced to Thomas Armat who was looking for investment opportunities. Jenkins was strapped for cash and by March 1895 they concluded an agreement by which Armat would “finance and promote the invention” of Jenkins.

The duo patented the Phantoscope on 28th August 1895 and gave a public demonstration of their device at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta in the autumn of 1895. A modified Phantoscope was patented on 20th July 1897 but relations between the two began to deteriorate. Jenkins eventually sold his interest in the projector to Armat who then sold the rights to Thomas Edison and the rest is history.

But Jenkins wasn’t finished as an inventor.

He developed a spiral-wound cardboard container, the design is still used today, a car with an engine in the front rather than under the driver (in 1898), an early version of a sightseeing bus (in 1901), an automatic starter for cars (1911), and an improved internal combustion engine (in 1912).

In an article entitled Motion Pictures by Wireless – Wonderful possibilities of Motion Picture Progress which appeared in the Movie Picture News of 27th September 1913, Jenkins announced that he had developed a mechanism which enabled him to view distant scenes by radio or, what we would nowadays know as television. Notwithstanding his enthusiasm, it took him another ten years before he was able to transmit a picture, of President Harding, from Washington to Philadelphia but by 1925 he was beaming moving pictures.

Granted a patent (US No 1,544,156 for Transmitting Pictures over Wireless) on June 30th 1925, Jenkins established the first commercially licensed TV station in America, W3XK, which made its first transmission on 2nd July 1928 from Washington. In 1929 it was broadcasting five nights a week.

It initially broadcast silhouettes but later moved on to transmitting black and white programmes. Jenkins’ company even produced the equipment that early adopters would have to use to receive the pictures.

But timing is everything. Selling expensive and, essentially, novelty equipment and services as America was plunging into the depths of the Depression was not a smart move. Jenkins’ company was declared bankrupt in 1931, opening up a space for RCA to exploit.

For your part in developing the cinema and television and failing to profit from it, Charles, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, check out Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Ninety

Sarah “Tabitha” Babbitt (1779 – 1853)

The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming aka the Shakers acquired their pejorative sobriquet, an abbreviation of Shaking Quakers, because of their rather idiosyncratic and ecstatic style of worshipping in which they waved their arms and legs about. As their more formal title suggests, they believed in the second coming of Christ and their lifestyle was founded on four basic tenets– communal living, celibacy, regular confession of sins and withdrawal from the outside world.

Men and women were treated as equals and people of different races and creeds were welcomed – truly revolutionary for the time but also sensible because the strict celibacy rule meant that they needed to recruit constantly to survive. There was also a strong work ethic in place, requiring each member of the community to work – each had an allotted task – and they were expected, in the words of their founder, Ann Lee, to toil “as if you had 1,000 years to live, and as if you were going to die tomorrow”.

Notwithstanding their style of worship, the Shakers certainly needed a steady hand for much of their work. Tabitha Babbitt lived in a Shaker community in Harvard, Massachusetts, spending her allotted hours of labour working a spinning wheel as a weaver. This gave her plenty of time to look about her and she was particularly struck by the amount of labour expended by those cutting up wood with the aid of a pit saw.

This type of saw has two handles, one at the top of the blade and one at the bottom, is used in a vertical position and requires two people to manipulate it, one standing above the wood to be cut and the other below in a pit. From an ergonomic perspective, it was inefficient. Although the blade passed backwards and forwards through the wood, it only cut when it was moved forwards. The only purpose of the return stroke was to get the blade back to the starting position, a phenomenal waste of effort.

There must be a better design, mused Tabitha. And so she started to work on a new type of saw, a circular saw. By 1810 she had developed a working prototype by attaching a round blade to her spinning wheel, powering it with the pedal of her wheel. It cut the wood more effectively and more quickly than other saws and was so efficient that no energy was wasted.

By 1813, a larger version of her saw had been installed in the community’s main saw mill. Because of her religious beliefs, Tabitha didn’t apply for a patent in the States. Two Frenchmen did so three years later when they came across details of the saw in Shaker papers.

A charming story but is there a grain of truth in it? Raking through the sawdust of history, it is unlikely.

Step forward, Samuel Miller, a sail maker from Southampton in England. He applied for and was granted a patent for a patent (No 1152) for a horizontal saw windmill in 1777. One of the features of the mill is a cutting device which Miller describes thus; “through the small wheel goes a square bar of iron, that receives the saws, which are a circular figure.” The intriguing thing about Miller’s description is that the circular saw was incidental to his patent, suggesting that he didn’t invent it and that they were by that time already used by some go-ahead carpenters.

Some sources attribute the invention of the circular saw to a German called Gervinus in 1780 but Miller’s description in his patent suggests that this is incorrect. Others point to another Southampton man, Walter Taylor, who had the blockmaking contract for the dockyard at Portsmouth. He replaced his earlier saw mill in 1781 and descriptions dating from the 1790s of the equipment he was using show that he had circular saws. But he didn’t bother to patent the design, again indicative of the fact that they were already part of some carpenters’ stock-in-trade. There are reports, sources unsubstantiated, that the circular saw came from Holland some time in the 16th or 17th centuries.

So where does this leave Tabitha?

Clearly, she didn’t invent the circular saw and she may not even have been the first Shaker to adopt it. A manuscript history of the Shaker community in Enfield in New Hampshire, written in 1858, records that “the first wheel or circular saw used here, was a slab saw, made with spokes and a rim of steel. This was first used, in the mill about 1803.

What is probably true is that the Shaker communities were early adopters of circular saw technology in the States – they were commonplace there by the 1820s – and Shaker innovation and ingenuity has been mistaken for inventiveness. A tenet of the community was the equality of the sexes and perhaps the promotion of Tabitha’s claims to an outside world which was heavily male orientated was to make a point. Who knows?

The fickle finger of fate, indeed.

If you enjoyed, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone