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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 Orleans.

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 about $130.

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 by vision.

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.

Military applications

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
article, in whole or in part, appeared in the December 1993 issue of Remodeling News.

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