Monday, August 2, 2010


The ax is an essential tool in anyone's toolbox. Even now. The interesting thing is, it did not reach its current ergonomic form until spending some time in the Americas. Early American tool kits would have contained hatchets, saws, chisels, adzes, hammers, mallets, augers, gimlets, bit braces, and axes. Most of the tools in size and shape were little changed from those used in the Middle Ages. Few new ones were changed or added. It may be that, according to Rob Tarule "to introduce a new tool may cause a sufficient disruption of the total system of tool use to be actually more hindrance than aid". Indeed, this might explain the hundreds of centuries of little technological change we see in both historic and prehsitoric times. Rather than any form of social conservatism, it might instead be a holistic pragmatism that stifled innovation and progress. This would be in keeping with my contextual view of history

At any rate, the heavy, awkward axe brought over from England (and again, one looks at use, this axe was a very effective battlefield weapon), had devolved into a light, balanced axe with a more massive head. It took a deeper bite out of a tree with less effort.  The bit, or cutting edge of the American axe was broader, allowing more momentum with each swing, and the handle was given a length and curve appropriate to the height of the axman. The axe swung straight and clean. A wielded American ax wielded by even a novice could fell three times as many trees as the European counterpart.

I would make the suggestion that the reason for this was because there was a lack of specialized division of labor in early America. The myth that the reason so many things became so quickly mechanized was due to a shortage of skilled labor really should be debunked. There was no lack of skilled labor, the obvious fact is there was a lack of demand for skilled labor. Remember, they are starting from scratch. There is, at the beginning, a large demand for generalists. It should not be surprising that a quick evolution in tool usage and tools would occur for tools to be used, not by specialists, but by inexperienced generalists. Generalists who circumstances have forced to specialize over a broad range of tasks. Couple this with the usual information exchange (voluntary or in-, e.g. the modern "open source" or traditional "open shop" mentality, or through plagiarism and idea theft), and you get yourself some changes.

Generalists performing tasks never before done, with no fund of skills to draw from. One finds a certain amount of intelligence and expertise crafted into the tool, to make up for the lack of experience of the wielder. Is this a common pattern in innovation? I suspect so. It would be interesting to find out. 


  1. But of course John innovation tries to make up for the lack of skill. Look at cameras, at one time you had to know how to make a wet plate, keep it from the light, pose your subject for long exposures, process your own negatives, and print them. Then came roll film, and the skill of making plates was no longer needed. Then came automatic exposure, then focus, then film cartridges. All the while, more and more people took more and more photographs, until they became snapshots. Then came digital with no need for film or really paying attention to exposure anymore at all. And then they did the most evil thing in the world, put cameras in cell phones. Innovation, easier for the masses to use, and the experience of the wielder is so low, that any nit wit can now take a picture.

  2. Hey Dan,

    Thanks for commenting. I suppose my observation that we "add intelligence" to our tools to make up for lack of expertise is probably a trivial one. But I would note that it does say something about trending. I'm sure someone from the 1860s would think of a polaroid ("wouldn't it be cool if these plates developed themselves somehow?"), but would not have anticipated digital cameras. Likewise, I could probably repair a camera from the 1920s, but not a cellphone.

  3. There was nothing trivial about your observation. I even like your extension of anticipating the next generation of technology or enhancements. That is the reason I hate 5 year plans, or meeting all your life goals (says the financial planner at American Express); they are always wrong and can never anticipate what will change.