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Hand Tools

Hand Tools

Earliest stone and metal tools

Development of modern tools

Modern technology


Hand tools are the various types of devices that have been designed and manufactured to perform specific tasks, without the use of a motoronly with the power of the user. Examples of hand tools are hammers, saws, can openers, and screwdrivers. They can be as easily found as made, and the earliest tools used by people included sticks and rocks picked up and used as projectiles, or to pound or dig. The earliest fashioned hand tools date back to the Stone Age (the era generally from the start of human technology to the start of agriculture). Many hand tools have been converted into power tools (those that use some type of motor), such as circular saws and power drills. Currently new technologies make hand tools that are battery-powered, so they are still portable, yet easier to use than their precursors.

Tools are an extension of human limbs and teeth, and were first inspired by human limitations. Things that would be torn by an animal with its teeth required sharp rocks or sticks as knife edges for less well-equipped humans. Sticks could also dig out what human hands could not pull out. They could be used as noisemakers or be thrown at intruders as an intimidation tactic. Even today monkeys and apes use various objects in these ways, so it is not difficult to imagine early humans exhibiting this same ingenuity.

Earliest stone and metal tools

Technology begins in human history when the first stone flints or spear tips were deliberately cut, which are known as Oldowan tools or eoliths. It is very difficult for archaeologists to prove that the sharpened edges of some stone artifacts are the work of human hands rather than the result of the shearing of one stone against another over eons. However, certain improvised tools such as pebbles and animal bones, show clear signs of the wear and tear associated with deliberate use. Chipped quartz tools are identified as such because of the situation in which they were unearthed, accompanying human remains in areas clearly definable as settlements.

About one and one-half million years ago, an improvement was made upon the basic carved tool, with the aid of better raw materials. The newer tools fall into three categories of standardized designs; mainly handaxes, picks, and cleavers. These Acheulian tools are the work of humans with larger brains than previous incarnations of the genus Homo. They first appeared during the Paleolithic or early Stone Age period.

Handaxes from this period are flaked on both sides and often shaped carefully into teardrops. Picks are long tools, with either one sharp edge or two. Cleavers are smoothed into U-shapes with two sharp points on one side. With these inventions, humans began to consider how an object would fit the hand, and how it might be designed for optimum impact.

Acheulean tools were made in great numbers across much of Africa and Europe, as well as India and the Near East. They were produced over thousands of years but such tools led to no modern counterparts. Archaeologists, therefore, have a long list of possible uses for these artifacts, which may have served more than one purpose. Butchering animals, digging for roots or water sources, and making other tools are the most common suggestions. More inventive ones include the killer frisbee projectile, a use for disc-shaped objects proposed by two researchers at the University of Georgia. Iceman, a fully preserved human over 5,000 years old, was found with articles of clothing and tools and weapons on his person. This fortunate occurrence has given archaeologists a chance to theorize about the uses of particular tools, rather than piecing together scattered remains and surmising about possible uses for artifacts.

The later periods of the Neolithic and Bronze Ages saw further developments in metallurgy and design. Axes were made in two pieces, a head and a shaft bound together by plant or animal fibers. Metal alloys like bronze were deliberately crafted to improve the durability and efficiency of hand tools. Smithing was an art as well as a science, well into the Iron Age. Handcrafted knives were important for nomadic peoples who hunted to survive, and swords especially became crucial tools in warfare. The invention of the metal plow brought agriculture a huge step forward, since it made systematic planting over wide areas possible. This was a great improvement over digging holes one at a time.

Development of modern tools

Some hand tools have gone out of style or are used only rarely, but not all. The cobbler used to make shoes by hand, but now people buy mass produced shoes and only take them to a repair shop to be worked on by hand. However, a sewing needle has not changed in centuries, and is still a common household object. Even though people now have access to big sewing machines, it is still easier to fix a button or darn a small tear with a plain needle. During colonial times only the metal parts of an implement would be sold to a user, who would then make his own handle out of wood to fit in his


Acheulean A term for the tools made by Homo erectus, which are recognizably standard designs. The name comes from a Paleolithic site discovered in St. Acheul, France during the 1800s.

Cobbler An old term for a shoemaker.

Cooper An old term for a barrel maker.

Eolith Chipped stones and flints made by humans, which give the Eolithic or Stone Age period its formal name. This period is further divided into the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age and the Neolithic or New Stone Age.

Iceman The body of a Stone Age man dug up in the Tyrolean Alps, preserved in ice.

Oldowan A term for tools made during the earliest several hundred thousand years of the Stone Age by Homo habilis, items which follow no distinct patterns.

Smith Someone who works with metals or who makes things. A blacksmith uses iron primarily, while a gunsmith specializes in weaponry.

hand perfectly. Many things made with metal, nowadays, like nails and shovels, were fashioned from wood instead. This is why older buildings and tools have aged well, without problems like rusting or damage to adjacent materials.

Modern technology

Simple hand tools, which cut or pound or assemble, may now be sold with attached metal or plastic handles, but their basic designs and operations have not changed over time. The plane and the file smooth down metal or wood surfaces. Drills and saws are now primarily electric, to save time and energy. Hammers come in all sizes, from the rock-breaking sledgehammer to the tiny jewelers model, which is used to stamp insignias into soft metals like sterling or gold. Screwdrivers attach screws and wrenches tighten nuts and bolts together in areas where larger tools would not reach as easily. Measuring tools are also included under the category of hand tools, since they include tape or folding measures that may be carried on a tool belt. Squares and levels now measure inclines and angles with liquid crystal digital displays, but they otherwise look and feel like their old-fashioned counterparts.

Current research and development applies computer-aided design (CAD) programs to simulate models as if under stress of actual use, in order to test possible innovations without the expense of building real prototypes. Lightweight alloys, plastics, and engineered woods are used to improve versatility and convenience. Poisonous heavy metals are being replaced with safer plating materials, and nickel-cadmium batteries may soon be replaced with rechargeable units that are easier to recycle.



Dodds, Steve. Tools: A tool-by-tool Guide to Choosing and Using 150 Home Essentials. Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books, 2005.

Kooyman, Brian P. Understanding Stone Tools and Archaeological Sites. Calgary, Canada: University of Calgary Press, 2000.

Schick, Kathy D., and Nicholas Toth. Making Silent Stones Speak: Human Evolution and the Dawn of Technology. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.


How Designs Evolve. Technology Review (January 1993).

Icemans Stone Age Outfit Offers Clues to a Culture. New York Times (June 21, 1994): B7.

Recreating Stone Tools to Learn Makers Ways. New York Times (December 20, 1994): B5.

The Technology of Tools. Popular Science (September 1993).

Jennifer Kramer

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