5 old tool designs that survive nearly unchanged
Some shapes in the automotive world are just timeless, like the grille of a 1969 Mustang. Even restomod shops leave it alone. The same goes for tools: During an evening of working in the garage, you’re likely to touch several whose designs have survived, nearly unchanged, since they were invented.
For the sake of argument, let’s exclude anything that is simply a formed piece of metal—screwdrivers, sockets, and hammers—and focus on items with some kind of mechanism. Inventors are likely the first to tell you that perfection on the first or even the second try doesn’t happen often, but these five tools got awful close.
The use of gears to create a one-way mechanism is old—over a century and a half. J.J. Richardson patented the idea of a ratcheting wrench in June of 1863 and, while his design appears archaic by modern standards, it relies on the same principles as the ratchets that sit in virtually every toolbox around the world.
A center gear doubles as the attachment point for the socket. That gear interacts with two smaller ones that force it to spin either clockwise or counterclockwise. The direction of a modern rachet is easy to switch, and its gears have evolved to be much finer, minimizing the rotation required to grab the next tooth, thus making the ratchet more efficient in tighter spaces.
If you thought of one tool when you saw this article’s headline, it was probably this. History traces the bench vise back to the 1700s, but the first modern version was made of poured cast iron in the 1830s. The casting process was rudimentary, though, and resulted in a porous finished product that had the potential to break during use. Today, the best modern vises are forged.
The modern four-stroke engine traces back to Nicolaus August Otto and his experiments with compressing the air and fuel inside a cylinder prior to ignition. This discovery led to more efficient engines that gave us—literally—more bang for a buck’s worth of fuel.
To contain compression and combustion, you must put a seal on the piston; to do that, you must be able to compress said piston rings to fit into the cylinder bore while you assemble it. Consider that Otto was experimenting with his designs in the 1860s, and it’s reasonable to conclude that our spring-form piston ring compressors trace to this time period. Not everyone uses these tools, but those who do know just how important they can be.
As long as there have been cars, we have needed to lift them. While an incline plane (a ramp) effectively raises the car while the vehicle is on its wheels, a spiral incline plane combined with four metal arms and a base will lift a car from any point to allow you to remove wheels or other parts. That is the essential form of a scissor jack: A screw that pulls together two arms that provide lift.
The design traces back at least 100 years and it is nearly comical how little has changed from the patent drawing to the folded-metal jacks found in the trunks of so many modern cars. Jacks and spare tires might be falling by the wayside, but the simplicity of a scissor jack will stand the test of time, even if it has never passed the test of safety with flying colors.
The main thing we need while working is a third hand, something that can hold our workpiece together or give us a handle on something otherwise untouchable. The over-cam design for locking jaw pliers might be the youngest one on this list: 99 years have passed since inventor and blacksmith William S. Petersen penned the design that became the nearly indispensable tool we know today. The easy-release lever was added in a slight redesign by Petersen in 1957 (above).
Have a tool to add to the list? Leave a comment below telling us another tool that has stood the test of time. The history behind what we take for granted can be quite fascinating.