History of the Circular Saw

History of the Circular Saw

A Victorian Saw Pit

Before the circular saw, logs would be laid across a pit like this, with one man working one end of the pit saw down below. Photo credit: Gertrude Jekyll. Old West Surrey (1904)

Today I’d like to pay some well-earned honor to one of the most important inventions in our industry (particularly the lumber-processing part of it): the circular saw. Like many products of the industrial revolution, the history of the circular saw is a story founded on legend as much as fact – both of which are equally as interesting.

Inventing the Circular Saw: A Brief History

It’s commonly told that Samuel Miller was awarded British Patent #1152 in 1777 for what is considered the first circular saw machine. Some assert that the wording in his patent indicates the circular blade itself was in common use by the time; it was the sawing machine itself that Miller had invented.

early circular table saw

A patent drawing for an early table (circular) saw. Being a Shaker, Tabitha Babbitt did not patent her original version.

Some evidence shows that Gervinus of Germany built something similar in 1780 while others claim it was the Dutch who invented the device some hundred or so years earlier.

A little while later we hear about a man named Walter Taylor who supplied the Royal Navy with high quality rigging blocks into the early 19th century. Taylor is responsible for a variety of patents centered on wood processing, although none on the machine itself. But, history has proven he used circular saw blades in his mills.

It seems, like many inventions of the time, the circular saw was a concept developed similarly and independently throughout parts of the developing world. All these stories of the circular saw’s rise in Europe seem completely separate from how it happened here in America.

Or, at least, how it’s told in America.

Here in America – more specifically in Harvard, Massachussetts – they say that a Shaker woman named Tabitha Babbitt appears to have also invented a circular saw entirely of her own volition and design. As legend has it, she got the idea while watching two Shaker men struggling with a pit saw. At the time, these saws could only cut in one direction, making ripping logs was a horribly tedious task. The lumber men would waste half their energy moving their saw back and forth, only cutting on the forward stroke.

That is, until Ms. Babbitt and her splendid idea.

Tabitha Babbitt: Serendipity in a Spinning Wheel

Tabitha created a notched tin disk and rigged it to spin with the pedal push of her spinning wheel. With this simple invention, wood could be cut with a fraction of the time and effort it took using the old pit saw.

Her basic idea was used to create a much larger device for use in the saw mill, and the circle saw quickly caught on as the wood processing tool of choice.

As a Shaker woman, Tabitha’s religious beliefs prevented her from receiving a patent. But, fortunately, history has remembered her yet.

When the York Saw Works started in 1906, our focus included machine knives, but it was saw blades that took the lead in popularity. It makes sense, though. In addition to its history of woodcrafts & industrial ingenuity, Pennsylvania was a timber industry powerhouse at the turn of the last century.  Indeed, this was true of much of the Northeastern US at the time. Without the keen eye & inventive contributions of people like Samuel Miller or Tabitha Babbitt, who knows where we’d be today?

More Circular Saw History