A Brief History of the Circular Saw

While the origins of a great many woodworking tools can be traced and documented, the precise origins of the circular saw remain obscure. In this instance, “circular” refers to the shape of the blade, and not to a specific type of tool.

According to Manfred Powis Bale, “The circular saw is said to have originated in Holland in the sixteenth or seventeenth century, but there is nothing to show who was the inventor.”1 The earliest known patent referencing the circular saw was awarded in 1777, and is worded in such a way as to imply that the circular blades were commonplace by that time.2

British patent, No. 1152.

To SAMUEL MILLER, of Southampton,

Sail maker, &c., &c.

NOW KNOW YE, that, in compliance with the said proviso, I, the said Samuel Miller, do hereby declare that my said invention, of an entirely new machine for the more expeditiously sawing all kinds of wood, stone, and ivory, is described in the manner following (that is to say):—

The machine that gives the power, a horizontal windmill. The shaft of this mill stands vertical, with four levers fixed to it at right angles with the shaft, to which levers are fixed the sails. These sails when in motion are one-half of their time horizontal, the other vertical. The upright shaft being in motion, communicates its power to a horizontal shaft. This shaft hath a large wheel to it, round which goes a rope or chain, which is continued to a smaller; through the small wheel goes a square bar of iron, that receives the saws, which are a circular figure. Those saws being in motion, the matter or substance they are to cut is brought forward as follows:— The horizontal shaft, as mentioned before, hath a small wheel on it, with a groove to receive a rope; the rope is continued to a smaller, that hath a pinion to it, connected to a straight bar under the chariot, which hath teeth to match the pinion; the chariot moves in a groove likewise on a centre; it hath two motions. one to advance forward, and the other sideways, which is performed by a screw annexed to the end of the chariot. This screw is turned by hand to direct the pieces against the saws, agreeable to any line wanted to be cut.

In witness whereof, I, the said Samuel Miller, have hereunto set my hand and seal, this Fifth day of August, One thousand seven hundred and seventy-seven.

[Signed] “SAMUEL MILLER.” (L.S.)

There is an oft-quoted assertion that the circular saw blade was invented in 1813 by Shaker Sister Tabitha Babbitt (1784–1854). This is most often cited by Shaker “historians”, aficionados-of or workers-in that design idiom, or by other parties who are simply parroting the aforementioned mentioned sources. However, there is nothing in the historical record to document this claim, and considering the existence of the Miller patent some thirty-six years before, and various authoritative and credible sources on the history of woodworking technology describing systems in use more than a century before that, this claim is unsubstantiated and without basis in fact.

Notes:

1 Bale, M. Powis. Woodworking Machinery: Its Rise, Progress, and Construction. (London: Crosby Lockwood and Son, 1880), 6.

2 Richards, John. A Treatise on the Construction and Operation of Wood-working Machines. (London: E. & F.N. Spon, 1872), 9.