The great divide
by Leon A. Frechette
When you use your worm-drive or circular saw (sidewinder), have
you ever wondered how these portable saws came about? Well, I have,
so I spent some time turning over stones looking for the answers.
It's both intriguing and interesting at the same time. In fact,
I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall at that time to
have seen the whole event come together.
A tool is born
Imagine standing in a field of sugar cane back in the early 1920s
watching field hands slashing thick stalks with machetes. That is
just what happened in 1921 to a Frenchman named Edmond Michel in
New Orleans, Louisiana. Noticing the backbreaking work, he came
up with an idea he thought would increase the efficiency of sugar
cane production. His decision that day would alter history and would
make our lives in the construction field a whole lot easier.
What he did was take a regular machete and just below the handle,
facing forward, he mounted a "Beach" malted-milk mixer
motor. With the driving end facing forward, he installed a 15"
x 1/4" shaft down near the bottom of the blade near the cutting
edge. He then mounted a worm and worm wheel gearbox at the tip of
the machete (this gave him a perfect right-angle drive). At the
end of the shaft on the gearbox, he mounted a 2" circular blade;
and up near the handle, he mounted a toggle switch.
He now had invented what is called the very first electric handsaw.
But in those days, a motor generator was almost as big as a cement
truck. Could you imagine having something like that with extension
cords reaching into these tremendous fields for cutting sugar cane?
Even though it was a great idea, it worked slowly and did not prove
to be practical.
So Michel, an intelligent individual, went back to his shop and
took a piece of 1" x 5" wood about 12" long and cut
a "U" shape into it. At the back end, he left an area
to be used as a handle. In the center of the "U" shape,
he mounted the mixer motor which was taken from the machete. Using
the same principles as on the machete, he installed a shaft, worm
gear drive, and a 6" saw blade at the end of it. Believe it
or not, this tool when hooked up to electricity was able to cut
through 1" material—slowly, but it did the job.
A partnership is formed
By about 1923, Michel had a portable electric handsaw similar to
the worm drive we use today. But it wasn't over yet. A New Orleans
newspaper ran a small feature article about his invention and a
farmland developer by the name of Joseph W. Sullivan on his way
to Florida by train came across the article in an old copy of the
newspaper. Excited by what he read, he impulsively changed his route
and traveled to New Orleans to find Michel. After seeing Michel
and his makeshift unit, Sullivan was still excited by the idea and
his faith was unshaken.
In late 1923 or early 1924, they set up a shop in the Chicago area
and hired a draftsman to draw blueprints for the wooden model. They
had an all-aluminum saw made for testing purposes and found it to
be a little on the small side. They then redesigned the saw into
a larger model. This saw was known as the Michel Electric Hand Saw;
and on January 20, 1924, a patent was issued. Only six saws were
produced, and to date, only one saw is known to still exist. These
saws had 7" blades and cost about $1,000 each to manufacture.
On July 1, 1924, the Michel Electric Hand Saw Company was incorporated.
Michel took three of the saws to New Jersey where the Boardwalk
was being installed, and J.W. Sullivan took the other three to California
to the L.A. area, where the massive influx of people triggered a
tremendous amount of home building. Bolton Sullivan (J.W.'s son),
who was selling for the company as well, recalls, "It was unusual
for a saw to run for more than two days. They had all kinds of switch,
gear, and bearing problems." In spite of the problems, the
contractors got involved and used them, made recommendations, and
were enthusiastic about the saws.
When J.W. came back, he and Michel redesigned the tool into a larger
model, increasing the motor power, enlarging the foot assembly,
and adding a larger blade (8"). Still known as the Michel Electric
Hand Saw (Model E), it went into production and became available
in the California area. It was also the only saw made in those early
days that was available to the market, and the unit selling price
was about $160.
About 1927 or early 1928, Michel wanted to get out of the company
to pursue other inventions, so J.W. Sullivan, with the involvement
of family money, took over the company and Michel returned to New
How the saw got its name
Here's an interesting fact. During the early production period,
there was a discussion at J.W.'s house between J.W. and Michel.
They were talking abut the saws and some of the things that were
necessary for a portable saw. By the way, the initial saw had a
very narrow foot and it did not tilt (as the saws do today). It
was strictly a cut-off saw. With the requirements of the tool as
a main topic they were discussing the issues of cut-off, ripping,
mitering and beveling, compound miter cuts, pocket cuts, and so
forth, when Mrs. Sullivan, listening to all this said, "Whoever
could do that must have a lot of skill, and it takes a lot of skill
to do that."
When Michel left, J.W., of course, wanted to change the name of
the company. He remembered his wife's comments and ended up calling
the company "Skilsaw." It was during this period that
the worm drive, now called Skilsaw (Model E), was manufactured right
up to 1939 and was finally discontinued. In 1937, the very first
Model 77 with a 7 1/4" blade (refined from the Model E) was
built by Edward Sterba. Since then, the Skilsaw name is mistakenly
used for other brands of saws and Skilsaw is used and accepted around
the world. What is also amazing is that the price for a Model 77
has not changed much. A unit in 1941 cost $105; today, the saw is
Sidewinder saw developed
Because the original worm-drive saw was protected by the invention
patent, manufacturers started playing around with what is called
an in-line motor. This is where the motor is driven to a spur type
gear and then to a driving gear that drives the saw blade. In other
words, the motor sits at a right angle to the blade. The initial
saw that was developed for testing had the motor mounted on the
right-hand side. Manufacturers were hoping to keep the blade on
the left-hand side (like the worm drive) so the user could actually
see the blade and the line of cut, allowing for very intricate cuts
Unfortunately, the motors at that time were as big as coffee cans,
as I was told by Edward Sterba, and were very heavy. When the saw
approached the end of a cut, the weight of the saw dropping down and
to the right would either split or crack the wood. This style made these
saws impossible to handle, so the motor was mounted on the left-hand
side. Now during a cut, the weight of the motor sits on the piece of the
material that is being cut. This became known as the sidewinder, or
top-handle circular saw.
It is my understanding that Arthur N. Emmons invented the circular
saw (sidewinder) in 1928. Arthur started with Porter-Cable (a division
of Rockwell Mfg. Company) in 1919 and became chief engineer in 1923.
At that time Porter-Cable was located in Syracuse, New York.
I've always wondered why the East Coast uses sidewinders and the
West Coast uses the worm-drive saw. But as I learned, it was in
the locations of the manufacturers and what line the distributors
were carrying and not personal preference. The Skilsaw worm-drive
saw was manufactured in the Midwest and then brought to the West
Coast and the market was established. The sidewinder was developed
on the East Coast and a distributor who was handling one line of
products also bought the sidewinder because it was being made by
the same company they were buying from. This is the way it was in
those days. Today, it's not the same, and I use both saws: the sidewinder
for finish work and the worm-drive for framing.
During World War II, Skil worked to develop a circular saw for
military applications. An air-driven Thor motor was mounted on a
12" worm-driven saw and this tool was used in all types of
construction. This saw worked about everywhere, even underwater
to cut piles or timbers. The PS-12, as they called it, was manufactured
in camouflage colors: the saw blade was black and the body was in
a greenish color, the requirement for tools during wartime.
The Navy had Skil put this tool into a special camouflage box coated
and sealed with plastic. When they were unable to get into a landing
area, the unit would be dumped overboard and floated or dragged
in for use on aircraft landing areas.
A circular saw invented before electricity?
Even though I found information on circular saws dating back to
1777, I found the following reference quite interesting. According
to Women, Technology and Innovation (Joan Rothschild, Editor,
Pergamon Press, 1982), invention of the circular saw blade is attributed
to a Shaker inventor, Sarah Babbit, of Massachusetts. Apparently
in 1810 she made and attached a notched tin disk to the spindle
of her spinning wheel and successfully cut a piece of shingle. Out
of this crude beginning developed circular saws and blades.
Where are they now?
Edward Sterba, who started with Skil in 1937, had the opportunity
to meet with Michel and knew the Sullivan family quite well. Since
then, Michel and the Sullivans have passed on and Edward Sterba
is now retired. He was very helpful in sharing firsthand accounts
of historical information for this article.
Dick Jarmon, who was a good friend of Arthur H. Emmons, supplied
the information on the circular saw. Arthur retired from Porter-Cable
and has since passed away.
While every attempt was made through documents, employees, company records, newspaper articles, and the library to authenticate the facts used for this article, in some cases generalized information and dates were given because specific data could not be located.
Copyright © 1993,
1998, & 2006 LAF/C.R.S., Inc. All rights reserved. The previous
in whole or in part, appeared in the December 1993 issue of
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