How tools shaped our world

Science Museum

Tools are one of the most immediate ways we have to shape the world around us. They can take a huge range of forms – from complex, high-precision machine tools to tiny, simple hand tools. Taking a closer look at these seemingly everyday objects reveals an intriguing record of human ingenuity.

This is a ‘personification print’ which shows the four figures – soldier, tailor, musician and cooper or cobbler – composited from tools of their trade.

Tools, tools, everywhere
Hand tools have infinite uses, helping us cut, shape, measure, grip, mark and more. By extending our capabilities, tools help us do things that would otherwise be impossible – from carrying out surgery to preparing food. We need tools for so many things that we’re just as likely to find them in the home as in the workplace.
Form follows function
Some types of tools look very alike, despite vastly different uses. This can create an unnerving effect. For example, these sugar nippers are similar to some types of castration tongs used by vets: both are used to crush material. 
The devil’s in the detail
There are as many types of tools as there are tasks needing them. Where tools with similar functions differ is in their construction details. A surgical saw may look similar to a carpenter’s saw, but the surgical saw has different-shaped blades to avoid damaging tissue, along with even handles to fit the surgeon’s hand. 

This amputation saw was made in Paris in the 18th century. It resembles a hacksaw, but has a different blade.

The handle of this skull saw, made from stainless steel, was moulded to fit into the surgeon’s hand.

Tools of the senses
Because tools extend human capabilities, their design has evolved to suit their users’ senses. Many blacksmiths’ tools had willow handles, which may seem fragile – but their flexibility meant they would not jar in the hand and were less tiring to use. And some tools that look tough, such as mallets, can be used with surprising precision. 

Mallets are big and round so a carver can concentrate on where the chisel is cutting – not on hitting it straight.

These swages would have been used to shape a piece of hot iron. The handles take different forms, including rods twisted together.

Functional or decorative?
Many historical tools are surprisingly decorated. This often reflected a user’s pride in their tools, the skills they had acquired in using them, and their importance in sustaining their livelihoods. Other tools acquire unique shapes and surfaces by being worn away through use, giving them an unexpected beauty.

This instrument is used for measuring. In a playful design, the two ‘legs’ of the tool are represented literally.

Look at the shapes of these tools – you can see how the hammer has been worn away by years of use.

This elaborately decorated compass plane was used for smoothing concave surfaces.

Tools at home
Many of the tools we recognise are associated with particular trades, from carpenter to surgeon. However, we all encounter tools in the home, too. We use tools in thousands of day-to-day jobs, such as cooking and eating food. In fact, we use them so much that we forget tools are there – but they are, expanding our human capabilities.
Tools and the Science Museum Group
The Science Museum Group has many thousands of amazing tools. Our Hand and Machine Tools collection has everything from tiny scissors to huge steam hammers. Tools are found throughout many of our other collections, from metrology to obstetrics. These tools can shed light on unexpected areas and specialist skills, but they are also a record of our everyday lives. Together, they show us how our world has changed.
Science Museum Group
Credits: Story

All images © Science Museum Group except where stated.

See more tools from the Science Museum Group in our online collection.

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