A Century in the Making: The Development of the Electric Drill

Invented over a hundred years ago, the portable electric drill has been around for so long that many of us take it for granted. It is an essential piece of equipment for professionals and non-professionals alike, from construction jobs to do-it-yourself home renovations. Power drills have a variety of uses, and it’s hard to imagine life without them. You just pop in the drill bit best suited for your needs and off you go. However, there was a time when they weren’t a part of every handyman’s tool kit.

Developing The Drill

Prior to the advent of the portable drill, the only electric drills in use were too large to be operated by a single person. They were stationary machines found only in industrial and manufacturing facilities. That all changed in 1916 when the Black + Decker Manufacturing Company filed a patent for a half-inch portable electric drill designed to be used by one person. The new device was powered by a universal electric motor that could run on alternating current (AC) or direct current (DC), and it was controlled by a trigger mounted on its pistol-grip handle. Despite all of the advancements in technology, these features have always been included on portable drills right up to the present day.

Trigger Finger

The founders of Black + Decker, S. Duncan Black and Alonzo Decker, had opened a machine shop in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1910. It was during this time that they came up with the concept of a portable electric drill. One day, as Black and Decker were working on the design of the drill and deciding how the user would be able to hold and control the device, they were struck by inspiration. One of the clients at their machine shop was gun manufacturer Colt, and the design of a Colt handgun was the perfect solution to their problem. With this in mind, they created the pistol grip and trigger that would be an integral part of the drill’s design for the next century and beyond.

Industrial Use

Once the portable electric drill was developed and patented, Black and Decker established a 12,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in nearby Towson, Maryland, in 1917. Here they would produce their new drill, as well as portable electric air compressors and other products. At the time, there was no market for home improvement products and the drills were too expensive for the general public, so they were designed to be used primarily in the industrial sector. However, a funny thing happened – employees, as they are wont to do, started to borrow the drills from work in order to use them on their own personal projects at home. Suddenly, the potential of a do-it-yourself market began to take shape.

Creating A Market

Thanks to plant supervisors observing employees taking company property home with them, a whole new market was created. Already advertising locally by 1921, Black + Decker set their sights on the national consumer market and published a full-page ad in the Saturday Evening Post to appeal to the general public. According to company history, affordable and portable electric drills were first made available to non-professionals in 1923. Realizing the financial benefits of this new home improvement market, Black + Decker taught distributors how to properly and effectively sell power tools by holding mobile classes on company buses.

The Depression and World War II

Just as things were looking up for the company, the Great Depression brought everyone down. Although they struggled like most companies at the time, Black + Decker survived the Depression and later benefitted from government contracts handed out during World War II to provide war materials for the United States and its allies. After the war ended, a new line of home power tools was introduced to the public in 1946, featuring quarter-inch and half-inch drills, drill stands, and other accessories.

The Cordless Drill

The next major step in the evolution of the drill came in 1961 when Black + Decker unveiled the very first cordless portable electric drill, powered by a nickel-cadmium battery. Once again, this new innovation was designed for industrial and commercial use rather than the home improvement market, and it was a welcome development for professionals due to the scarcity of power outlets on construction sites. Japanese tool maker Makita was the first to make cordless power drills available to the general public in 1978.

Tools in Space

The advent of the cordless drill was not only a boon for contractors and carpenters on Earth, but it also attracted the attention of NASA. In the early-to-mid 1960s, Black + Decker and Martin Marietta were contracted to develop tools that could be used in outer space. One such invention was the zero-impact wrench, which allowed an astronaut to turn bolts in the weightless void of space without spinning himself as well. Later, the company created a cordless rotary hammer drill to extract rock samples for the Apollo space program, designed to withstand zero-atmosphere conditions and extreme temperatures.

The Milwaukee Electric Tool Company

While Black + Decker were truly groundbreaking in the development of the portable electric drill, many other companies deserve credit for contributing to the process of innovation over the years. After a fire destroyed A.H. Peterson’s manufacturing facility, the Milwaukee Electric Tool Company acquired his Hole-Shooter – a lightweight portable drill – in 1924 and made it more powerful and durable. Designed for professional users, Milwaukee developed the right-angle drill as well as variations to the basic drill and driver for both corded and cordless versions.

Lithium-Ion Batteries

In 2005, Milwaukee revolutionized cordless tool technology with the introduction of lithium-ion batteries, completely altering the form, features, and functions of drills and other cordless tools. Scientific advancements in tool and battery electronics have opened the doors to a host of possibilities, including products equipped with LED lights and “smart” drills that adjust the power based on the task at hand. As the portable electric drill continues to evolve, the pistol-grip trigger handle remains the same.