How tools shaped our world

Science Museum

Science Museum Group

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.

Illustration of four men, each made up of tools of their trade, Unattributed, 1830, From the collection of: Science Museum
Show lessRead more

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

A huge wall-mounted toolkit (1933) by Zoltan GlassScience Museum

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.

Sugar nippers (1880/1900)Science Museum

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. 

Kaeber's separating saw (1880/1920) by S.S. White Mfg. Co.Science Museum

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. 

Amputation saw, Foucou of Paris, 1701/1800, From the collection of: Science Museum
Show lessRead more

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

Horsley-type skull saw, Krohne and Sesemann, 1900/1926, From the collection of: Science Museum
Show lessRead more

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

A blacksmith in his foundry (1905) by Frank Meadow SutcliffeScience Museum

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. 

Mason's mallet, From the collection of: Science Museum
Show lessRead more

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

Blacksmith’s swages, From the collection of: Science Museum
Show lessRead more

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

Tenon saw carved into the shape of a bird (1760/1800)Science Museum

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.

Pair of callipers in the shape of legs, 1800, From the collection of: Science Museum
Show lessRead more

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

Set of filemaker’s tools, From the collection of: Science Museum
Show lessRead more

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

Decorated compass plane (1717)Science Museum

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

Selection of plastic toy tools (1990/2000) by UnsignedScience Museum

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.

Surgical instruments stored at Blythe House (2018-10-08) by Kevin PercivalScience Museum

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.

Credits: Story

All images © Science Museum Group except where stated.

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

The Science Museum is part of the Science Museum Group.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
Once Upon a Try
A journey of invention and discovery with CERN, NASA, and more than 100 museums around the world
View theme
Google apps