Tag Archives: newspaper

Who Invented the Jig Saw?

A few years ago, a press release came out declaring the history of that most useful of tools, the jig saw. It read:

“The jigsaw is celebrating its 60th birthday. About 60 years ago, Albert Kaufmann, who worked for the Swiss company Scintilla AG, invented the principle of the electric jigsaw. The inspiration for this came from his wife’s sewing machine: the very fast up and down action of the needle. By clamping a saw blade in this sewing machine, the inventor was able to produce extremely attractive curved cuts in wood. This represented the birth of a completely new tool. In 1947, Scintilla began series production of what was called the “Lesto jigsaw”, the first electric handheld jigsaw in the world.” 1

With the absence of any evidence to the contrary, this information has spread throughout the Internet, including to Wikipedia. For anyone researching the history of the jig saw, they will most likely find some quoting or paraphrasing of this press release; the fact that it is parroted on so many other web pages may make it appear that it is universally accepted as the truth.

While companies typically use press releases to extol the virtues of their own products and exclude all others, it is lazy for others to use such a press release as the sole citation in a history of the jig saw. The account given is an extremely simplified and unverifiable account of the history of such tools. We can see that better by examining the individual claims in the statement: that it is “the birth of a completely new tool”, that Kaufmann “invented the principle of the electric jigsaw”, and that the Lesto jigsaw was “the first electric handheld jigsaw in the world”. Along the way, we will get a much richer understanding of how many of the tools we use have evolved over time.

“The birth of a completely new tool.”

First, just what is a jig saw? The Oxford English dictionary defines it as “a vertically reciprocating saw driven by a crank, mounted in various different ways.” The term can be better understood by looking at the definition for jig: “To move up and down or to and fro with a rapid jerky motion”.   2

Hierapolis. Relief of an ancient double stone saw on the sarcophagus of M. Aur. Ammianos (2nd half of 3rd century AD).
Hierapolis. Relief of an ancient double stone saw on the sarcophagus of M. Aur. Ammianos (2nd half of 3rd century AD).

A reciprocating saw itself is nothing new; the Hierapolis sawmill from the second half of the 3rd century BCE used a reciprocating saw powered by a water wheel. 3

A jig saw is used to cut curves, though. A 1916 book put out by famed saw makers H. Disston & Sons, Inc. explains the provenance of saws for cutting curves:

“As a matter of fact, Fret, Scroll and Jig saws are very similar, and are used for practically the same purpose… The Fret Saw is used almost always by hand… The Scroll Saw, the blades of which are somewhat wider, is used on heavier work, and although frequently worked by hand is also used in a machine run by foot or other power. The Jig Saw, though often confused with the Fret and Scroll Saws, is distinctly a machine saw, and is used on all heavy work…

The Jig Saw resembles Fret and Scroll Saws mainly in the purposes for which it is used. It is a sawing machine with a narrow, vertical, reciprocating saw blade, on which curved and irregular lines and patterns in open work are cut…

A species of Fret Saw is the Buhl Saw. The name of this saw is derived from André Buhl, an Italian. He was celebrated throughout France, in the reign of Louis XIV, for inlaid work in wood.” 4

The Buhl saw, characterized by its long, thin blade held on either end in tension, is the ancestor of the fret saw. The earliest illustration of one is in Diderot’s famed encyclopedia, first published in 1751. There, in Volume 2, on page 96, in the second plate for Boissellier (carver), is a small drawing. 5

Buhl Saw, from Diderot's Encyclopédie, 1751
Buhl Saw, from Diderot’s Encyclopédie, 1751

Knight’s American Mechanical Dictionary provides some of the earliest descriptions and illustrations of jig and scroll saws. A jig-saw is “a vertically reciprocating saw, moved by vibrating lever or crank rod… Fig. 2723 is a form of portable jig-saw, which is readily attached to a carpenter’s bench or an ordinary table by means of a screw-clamp.” 6 We can see figure 2723, the portable jig-saw, below:

Portable jig-saw, 1884
Portable jig-saw, 1884

The same book also has a definition for a tool known as a “gig-saw”. This machine is “a thin saw to which a rapid vertical reciprocation is imparted, and which is adapted for sawing scrolls, frets, etc.” 7

Gig-Saw, 1884
Gig-Saw, 1884

Lastly, the book defines a scroll saw: “A relatively thin and narrow-bladed reciprocating-saw, which passes through a hole in the work-table and saws a kerf in the work, which is moved about in any required direction on the table. The saw follows a scroll or other ornament, according to a pattern or traced figure upon the work.”  8

Scroll Saws, 1884
Scroll Saws, 1884

Interestingly, the dictionary also states, “the band-saw is a scroll-saw and operates continuously.” Indeed, under the definition for gig-saw, Knight writes, “Scroll-saws are usually gig-saws or band-saws.”

The earliest use of “jig saw” I’ve found is in an 1857 patent, which describes a reciprocating saw method that can be used “for small scroll or jig saws”. 9 The first occurrence of the term “scroll saw” I could find was in an advertisement in the March 1, 1843, issue of the New York Daily Tribune on the front page.

New York Daily Tribune, March 01, 1843
New York Daily Tribune, March 01, 1843.

“Invented the principle of the electric jigsaw”

So it seems strange to claim that Kaufmann’s discovery represented “the birth of a completely new tool,” since the jig saw predates the supposed 1947 discovery by nearly a century, and automatically reciprocating saws in general date back to around 250 BCE. But Kaufmann made his electric, right? That’s the real discovery, isn’t it?

Too bad we have this little nugget from 1933:

“The simplest sort of hand scroll-saws can be purchased for as little as fifty cents. Those of better quality cost a dollar or two. Old-style jig-saws, that are run by foot-power as the older sewing-machines are, can be had at varying prices, but average around twelve or fifteen dollars. You find fewer and fewer of these, however, as the modern jig-saws are nearly all electric.” 10

Hand scroll saw and electric jig saw from Boys' Life, 1933
Hand scroll saw and electric jig saw from Boys’ Life, 1933

Not only does this article state that by 1933, electric jig-saws have become far more common than non-electric ones, but it also makes the interesting comparison between jig-saws and sewing machines, which is supposedly the flash of inspiration Albert Kaufmann will have in 14 years.

There were, in fact, a number of patents filed in the late 1920s through the mid 1930s for electrifying both scroll saws and stationary jig saws. Electrifying a jig or scroll saw was attempted as soon as possible at the advent of the Age of Electricity. An article in the 1888 Omaha Daily Bee states, “Besides, after using the batteries and motor during the summer vacation, you can unship them and take them home to run a sewing machine, a lathe or a jig-saw.”  11

Omaha daily bee, 1888
Omaha daily bee, 1888

Seven years before that, an article titled “Electricity as a Hobby” described a shop run in Brooklyn by Dr. St. Clair, a classmate of Thomas Edison. While listing the various novelties which have been electrified in his shop, it states, “The turn of a switch starts a self-feeding scroll saw by electricity.” 12

So it would appear the “principle of the electric jigsaw”, claimed as an invention of Kaufmann, actually dates sixty years prior to the date claimed in the Bosch press release.

“The first electric handheld jigsaw in the world.”

But what about their biggest claim, that the 1947 production of the Lesto jig saw was the first electric handheld jigsaw in the world?

I found a patent issued in 1931 for “a motor-operated jig saw, adapted to cut wood, fiber, metal and other materials, with a simple and convenient operating means; to provide convenient means for manipulating the saw.” This jig saw features “a base having a flat supporting surface so that it can be moved at will over a flat surface.”  13 The drawing below certainly resembles an electric handheld jig saw.

Pickering's 1930 jig saw
Pickering’s 1930 jig saw

Another patent, this one from 1941, describes providing “the benefits of jigsaw cutting, for example, to a portable tool.”  14

Of course, patents do not necessarily mean that a working prototype was ever built. Even working inventions do not mean a commercial product was ever brought to market. Indeed, none of the above-mentioned tools seems to have been available for purchase. So while claims of being the “first” electric handheld jig saw in the world are debatable, the fact that the Lesto was the earliest model you can actually buy seems likely.

One of the earliest written histories of the electric handheld jig saw comes in 1958. The authors refer to the tools as “electric handsaws”:

“[Forsberg’s] Whiz-Saws were the first American-made electric handsaws. They appeared soon after the Swiss-made Scinta (now Lesto) was introduced into the U.S. in 1945… The electric handsaw has been around ever since the first Scinta saw (now called Lesto) was brought over in 1945 from the world-famous Scintilla Company in Switzerland. Scintilla had been attempting to develop a “portable jigsaw,” little dreaming it would become the husky, all-around workhorse it is today… Scintilla soon had a competitor. Forsberg, working in this country, brought out its now-famous Whiz-Saw, using a similar version of the still-expensive planetary-gear drive… Early sales went to a small and strangely assorted group of professional users, among them stagehands, builders, heating, plumbing and electrical installers.”  15

An advertisement from eight years prior claims, “The electric Lesto Portable Hand Saw Designed, Manufactured and Patented by Scintilla, Ltd., Switzerland, since 1944.” 16

So by 1950, it would appear the story is that Scintilla has been making the Lesto (previously called the Scinta) jig saw since 1944 and has been selling it in the US since 1945. This is pretty good proof that the Lesto was indeed the first electric handheld jig saw you could buy, though I am unsure why the 2007 Bosch press release claims the Lesto was first produced in 1947 rather than 1944.

So in conclusion, the history of the jig saw is a fascinating and complex history and is part of the general evolution of tools over the centuries. I do not mean to knock Bosch (I believe they still make some of the best jig saws in the world; it’s the brand I own), but for all the other websites presenting the “history” of the jig saw, I wish their research would delve deeper than a 97 word press release.


  1. A Youthful Sixty-year-old: The Jigsaw Celebrates Its 60th Birthday. Bosch Media Service, 4 June 2007. Web. 23 Apr. 2012.
  2. Murray, James A. H., ed. A New Dictionary on Historical Principles. Vol. 5, Part 2. Oxford: Clarenden, 1901.
  3. Bachmann, Martin. Bautechnik Im Antiken Und Vorantiken Kleinasien: Internationale Konferenz 13.-16. Juni 2007 in Istanbul. Istanbul: Ege Yayinlari, 2009.
  4. The Saw in History. Philadelphia: H. Disston & Sons, 1916, pg 27.
  5. Diderot, Denis, and Pierre Mouchon. Encyclopédie; Ou Dictionnaire Raisonné Des Sciences, Des Arts Et Des Métiers, Vol. 2. Paris: Briasson etc., 1751.
  6. Knight, Edward Henry. Knight’s American Mechanical Dictionary. A Description of Tools, Instruments, Machines, Processes, and Engineering; History of Inventions; General Technological Vocabulary; and Digest of Mechanical Appliances in Science and the Arts. Vol. 2. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and, 1884, pg 1215.
  7. Ibid. pg 965
  8. Knight, Edward Henry. Knight’s American Mechanical Dictionary. A Description of Tools, Instruments, Machines, Processes, and Engineering; History of Inventions; General Technological Vocabulary; and Digest of Mechanical Appliances in Science and the Arts. Vol. 3. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and, 1884, pg 2077.
  9. Whipple, Carlyle. Method of Hanging and operating Reciprocating Saws. Patent 16416. 13 January 1857.
  10. Wendt, Carl E. “These Jig-Saw Puzzles.” Boys’ Life Mar. 1933: 16.
  11. “Summer Excursions by Electricity.” The Omaha Daily Bee (Omaha, NE) 9 Jan. 1888: 7. Library of Congress. Chronicling America: Historic Newspapers. Web. 3 May 2012.
  12. “Electricity as a Hobby.” The Sun (New York City) 20 Mar. 1881: 5. Library of Congress. Chronicling America: Historic Newspapers. Web. 3 May 2012.
  13. Pickering, Albert V. and Moore, Albert H. For a motor-operated jig-saw. Patent 1826188. 6 Oct 1931.
  14. Briggs, Martin. Power tool. Patent 2240755. 6 May 1941.
  15. Gallager, Sheldon M., and Ralph Treves. “Electric Handsaw: Year’s Most Exciting Power Tool.” Popular Science Mar. 1958: 168-73. Print.
  16. The Electric Lesto Portable Hand Saw. Advertisement. The Wood-Worker Aug. 1950: 65.

Friday Link-tacular

It’s Friday once again! I hope everyone was able to finish their taxes!

Last week there was a great newspaper piece on James Blumenfeld, the prop master at the Metropolitan Opera. The operas they put on are among the largest in the country, so it is fascinating to read what it takes to organize and corral all those props.

Here is another great newspaper piece on Torontonian prop maker Chris Warrilow. He runs a prop rental and fabrication shop, but his specialty is custom stage combat swords. The article has some great information about stage weapons.

It must be the year for writing about props people; here is an article on Peter Smeal, the props designer at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte right down here in North Carolina.

You can view the entire “Fundamentals of Machine Tools” (1996) published by the US Army. This is the manual used to train Army members in the use of powered machines for making and repairing things out of metal.

Here is a homemade carving pantograph; you trace your pattern on one end, and the Dremel on the other end carves it into a piece of wood. The commercial kits I’ve seen for this always look so cheap and flimsy.

Finally, if you have the time (about 16 minutes), this video shows the construction of one of Denmark’s most famous chair designs, called “The Chair”. It’s an expert blend of top-of-the-line CNC machines with old-world craftsmanship as the video goes from hundred-year old oaks in the forest to a completed piece of furniture.

Making a Fake Newspaper

I found myself making a few fake newspapers this past year. One was for this summer’s All’s Well That Ends Well at Shakespeare in the Park. The director, Dan Sullivan, wanted Lafew to read a newspaper with the headline “King Lives” emblazoned on the front. The production was set in and around World War I.

Newspaper cover from All's Well That Ends Well
Newspaper cover from All's Well That Ends Well

Since they wanted tabloid-size papers (11″ by 17″), printing was no problem; I used 18″ by 24″ newsprint from those giant pads you can get and fed them through the manual feed tray of our large-format printer. It’s a pretty crappy printer for most things, but it’ll print newsprint with no problem. Anyway, once folded over, you just need to trim a little bit off each side to get it to the proper size.

The other tricky part of fake newspapers is getting all the content inside. Now, I’m not going to touch on the complexities of copyright here—if this were television or film, you would need to get clearances on all the material you put into your newspaper. In this case, the period of the newspaper I was creating meant I could use a lot of public domain text and imagery.

Interior of the newspaper
Interior of the newspaper

The first thing to do is research (obviously). You want to find out how big the text was, what kinds of fonts they used, what the covers looked like, how many columns were on a page, and all those sorts of things. You probably won’t find a single image of a newspaper that will solve all your demands that you can just print out, but you can probably find one that will serve as a guide for proportion and layout.

I’ve discovered a few sources that I like to use for locating old-timey newspaper articles. The first is the New York Times Archive. You can set an advanced search to just look through their papers from 1851-1980. The great part is that for the earliest papers (I think it’s anything before 1920-something) you can access a scanned image of the actual newspaper page. This means you can search for specific subjects or keywords and certain dates to populate your newspaper; if you look at the larger version of the picture above, you’ll see all the articles are about World War I. The difficult part is that you cannot browse the newspapers, so it can be a pretty rigorous process to click through each article to see whether it is the right size or “look” for your needs.

Another great source I’ve just recently come across is The Library of Congress’ “Chronicling America” archive of historic American newspapers. This site lets you browse and search a large number of newspapers from all across the country. The papers from 1836-1922 are fully digitized as well. Unlike the Times’ archive, you can view full pages, complete with the ads and artwork.

Fake Variety for "Compulsion"
Fake Variety for "Compulsion"

I like to do all my layout in Photoshop and keep the file until the show opens. That way, if the director or designer have a note, like enlarging a headline, I can just go back to the file, make the change, nudge everything else around to make it all fit, and print a fresh copy. In the above picture of “Variety” which I made for Compulsion, I had actor notes as well. Mandy Patinkin had to read and reference a real news article on the inside of the paper, so I had to make several variations on its size and placement before a final version was agreed to.

Inside of "Variety"
Inside of "Variety"

It can get pretty laborious to fill several pages with actual newspaper text, so I also searched for vintage ads to fill space. I also like to copy blocks of text and paste them onto other parts of the page; there’s no need for every word to be unique! In some cases where I couldn’t clean up smudges or distorted words, I actually retyped portions of the text with a closely-matching font.

Fridays Links

I continue to be in USITT in Charlotte, North Carolina. Please enjoy these other sites from around the internet.

Foam latex step by step. A tutorial on modelling, molding and casting foam latex prosthetics.

Chronicling America has scanned images of a variety of newspapers from 1860-1922. It’s presented by the Library of Congress.

Time Magazine presents their list of the greatest 100 toys (from 1923-present). It also includes highlights of each decade from the 1920s on.

If you don’t know what pepakura is, the RPF has a huge introductory thread on pepakura. Basically, you cut and fold paper to make complex three-dimensional shapes; afterwards, you can even coat it in resin or back-fill it with fiberglass to strengthen it. The real breakthrough comes from the fact that you can take three-dimensional computer objects (from CAD files or from video games) and use software to automatically transform them into pepakura files which you merely need to print out and follow the directions to construct your model. I used to have a book where you could Make Your Own Working Paper Clock, but I lost most of it when our apartment burned down and the flames ate the paper up. What’s your excuse for not trying it out?

Top Prop News of 2010

With the end of 2010 fast approaching, I thought I would take a look back on some of the major news stories which have affected the world of props. The world of props is not really a fast-changing industry, so changes in the world are slow to impact all of us working in props. Still, a few stories this year have enough of an impact to be worth mentioning here.

SPAM website relaunches – The Society of Properties Artisan Managers is the largest organization of props masters and directors in the United States, with members from most of the major regional and educational theatres and operas. In the past, information about them or how to contact them seemed shrouded in mystery (though not on purpose). That changed in March with the launching of a new website, www.propmasters.org, which is more geared to props people seeking information on them and how they can get involved.

StageBitz software enters beta testing – This story just squeezed into this past year, and I don’t have much to report on it. StageBitz is a new (and possibly the first) online tool for professional props management. We’ve seen several minor attempts at software aimed toward the props master, though many of us end up adapting more general software, such as Microsoft Office, FileMaker Pro, or Google Docs for our needs. I’ll be beta-testing StageBitz through next March, and letting you all know how it is.

E-cigarettes – E-cigarettes continue to be in the news. As one of the few viable alternatives for on-stage cigarettes in many venues, prop masters and directors should be interested in the current legal state of using them. This past year, I summarized their current situation, which began with a July, 2009, report by the FDA on the potential health hazards of e-cigarettes. They were attempting to classify them as a drug-delivery device, which would allow them to enact a ban and prevent their importation, as opposed to a tobacco product, which would be regulated similarly to regular cigarettes (and not banned). Last January, the FDA attempted to block the shipment of e-cigarettes into the US, but a federal judge ruled against it. In September, they again attempted to classify e-cigarettes as a drug-delivery device rather than a tobacco product; a drug-delivery device, such as nicotine patches or gum, needs to be “proven safe and effective”, and so e-cigarettes can be effectively banned unless they underwent rigorous (and costly) testing to prove their efficacy as a stop-smoking aid. As a tobacco product, they are subject to far less regulation (a major problem is that many e-cigarette manufacturers insist on marketing their products as “safe alternatives to smoking” and helpful in quitting cigarettes, yet argue in court that they are merely recreational tobacco products. They’re trying to have it both ways). The court stopped the FDA from banning e-cigarettes. Finally, this past December, an appellate court withheld this ruling, and as of the end of this year, e-cigarettes remain legal in the US and most likely will be regulated as a tobacco product.
What’s most frustrating in all of this is that, as a prop, we are only interested in the zero-nicotine versions of e-cigarettes. In other words, we don’t need either a drug-delivery device or a tobacco product; what we want is something more akin to a mini–theatrical fogger.

Donmar Warehouse actor shot in face – David Birrell, an actor in a West End production of Sondheim’s Passion, was injured in his eye when a blank-firing replica flintlock rifle misfired, and taken to the hospital. He nearly lost his eye. This incident reinforced to prop masters and directors everywhere that when it comes to blank-firing weapons onstage, you can never be too safe.

Original Stargate auctioned off – Now, props from television and movies are constantly being auctioned off, so I’ll admit this one is included in the list due to my own personal excitement. Still, it does have some more significance than your average prop auction. Stargate SG-1 was the longest-running American sci-fi series, and when it ended, they began auctioning off most of the props and scenery. This past September, the actual Stargate used on location (not the one used on set) came up for sale. It had been created for the pilot episode and was used throughout the entire ten-year run of the show.

Reoccurring prop newspaper – This wasn’t so much a 2010 “event” as it was a thrilling series of investigative journalism that broke this past June. Starting with a compilation of images from TV and film that showed characters reading the same newspaper, the following day, an article in Slashfilm expanded on this and went viral. A few days later, Slate Magazine had tracked down not only the source—the Earl Hays Press in California—but also the reason: getting clearance to use real newspapers takes time and money.

My list ends here. I’ve covered all of these stories on either this blog or on my Twitter, so if you follow each, you’ll always be up-to-date on news that affects you as a props person. I’m sure many other stories happened in 2010 which are relevant to the props practitioner, so I leave it up to you: what are your favorite events, tools, materials or anecdotes that came out of the past year?