Academic journal article Journal of the International Academy for Case Studies

Porter-Cable: 90 Years of Making Power Tools

Academic journal article Journal of the International Academy for Case Studies

Porter-Cable: 90 Years of Making Power Tools

Article excerpt


Man's ingenuity in fashioning tools for labor is indeed a major theme in history. Records indicate that people were using stone, copper and iron tools two and a half million years ago. Motorized and electric tools have added so much efficiency, excitement, power and speed that such tools developed in the twentieth century helped turn work into a hobby for millions of Americans.

The first tool to use a source of power other than simple human movement was invented by a Shaker sister named Tabatha Babbit in 1810. She observed how labor-intensive two-man hand saws were and decided a circular saw would increase speed and reduce labor required to cut timber into logs. The original circular saws were first powered by a hand crank and later by a water wheel.

In 1884, a blacksmith named William Mack Dement sold his patent for the first solid-stem metal drill bit to a bartender to cover a $20 whiskey debt. The tavern owner, Charles Irwin, built the first portable electric power drill in 1895, only 16 years after the invention of electricity. C.E. Fine, a German engineering firm, adapted Irwin's drill into one powered by a DC motor and a chest plate, against which the user leaned to add force.

Duncan Black and Alonzo Decker conceived of a pistol grip electric drill in 1914, when they happened to look at a Colt automatic pistol laying on the table where they were sipping coffee and discussing ideas for a portable electric drill. They were able to design the tool and begin its manufacture in 1916. The Irwin augur bit, first developed by Charles Irwin, continued to be produced in Germany until a train ran through the manufacturing facility in 1969, and the plant was shut down.

R.L. Carter invented the portable router in 1919, by reworking an electric barber tool. The router allowed woodworkers to add craftsmanship to the finish of their wood products. Router bits cut into the surface of wood. In 1923 the first scroll saw was developed and manufactured by the Delta Company, a company that remains viable in the industry today. They sold their scroll saw for $6.

Henry Ford enlisted the services of inventor A.H. Peterson to produce a lighter electric drill to be used by those working on the assembly lines in the Ford plants. The drill Peterson developed weighed only five pounds. A version of this drill was later sold to a man named Siebert who started the Milwaukee tool company in 1924. The drill made by Milwaukee was called the hole-shooter.

Around the same time a man named Edmund Michel witnessed the brutal labor involved in cutting sugar cane in Louisiana. He decided, as had Babbit before him, that a motorized circular saw would make this job go a lot easier. The saw he developed was powered by a malted-milk-mixer motor. This saw, called the Skilsaw, weighed 10 pounds and sold for a whopping $160, which would be around $1500 in today's money. The saw would only last seven or eight hours and would have to be reworked, but despite such price and quality issues, the saw was such a labor-saver that people bought them.

In 1926, a young inventor named Art Emmons working for Porter-Cable designed and built the first portable belt sander. This tool would be the biggest selling tool for P-C for years to come. But it was not their first tool. Porter-Cable's first tool was the electric pencil sharpener, invented in 1906.

In the 1920s and 30s, tool salesmen would actually take generators out to job sites so they could demonstrate their power tools where electricity was not yet available. The salesman had to convince workers they should invest in power tools for when electricity became available, surely a tough sale.

Sears featured power tools in its catalog for the first time in 1928, which caused people to begin dreaming of the time when they might be able to invest in labor-saving tools for building and agricultural needs. However, the stock market crash of 1929 saw a major downturn in the power tool industry, so bad that Al Decker, Jr's father brought him in and told him that he would have to be the first person laid off by Black and Decker, since he could not lay off others with his son still working. …

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